Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

By Abel Merawi

Black-DeathApril 1, 2020 ( -- The history of human beings has been a constant struggle for survival. The war, from past to present, has been fought on three major fronts: against other human beings, against natural accidents such as earthquakes, and against epidemics. Of the three, most human lives were taken by epidemics caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites. In explaining the reason, Bryan Walsh in the article, ‘Covid-19: The history of pandemics’ states, “But when a virus – like the novel coronavirus – infects a host, that host becomes a cellular factory to manufacture more viruses.” It is by making us both victims and infectors that plagues spread. With the current alarming global spread of COVID-19, I deem it necessary to refer to the past and show our struggle against epidemics. Accordingly, we will begin our journey by looking at the deadliest pandemics throughout history, which claimed the lives of millions of people separately and around half a billion lives in combination. I hope, this will show us the seriousness of our current position.

The epidemics listed hereunder are not all-inclusive, since they only center on the five deadliest. But I like to begin by touching upon the oldest epidemics in our history. The most ancient one is believed to be a prehistoric epidemic around 3000 B.C. It is said to have wiped out an entire Chinese village. The mass burial site discovered by archaeologists in China is known as "Hamin Mangha," and to this day it serves as a testament of our ancient nemesis. Then in 430 B.C., we find the Plague of Athens, which is assumed to be a type of typhoid fever or Ebola. It is estimated that around 100,000 people have died from it. Afterward, we find Antonine Plague, which is assumed to have been smallpox, in the Roman Empire. From A.D. 165-180 it is estimated that that epidemic killed more than 5 million people. As the world became more civilized and connected, the death toll seems to be rising and the following five deadly pandemics occurred after this time.

From 1346-1353, our species faced the deadliest threat of pandemics from the plague called Black Death. It was caused by the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis that associated with Bubonic Plague. It is assumed to have originated in densely populated ports and spread by rats and fleas to three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. It is estimated that the death toll from the Black Death is between 75 and 200 million people. Owen Jarus in the article ‘20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history’ claims, “The plague changed the course of Europe's history. With so many people dead, labor became harder to find, bringing about better pay for workers and the end of Europe's system of serfdom.” In most cases, pandemics, including this perhaps, have a way of changing our way of life. This horrific pandemic was not the only one to devastate the world. It was followed by others caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

The second deadliest pandemic to our species came from smallpox. It is known as the New World Smallpox or the American Plagues because it has almost wiped out around 90% of the indigenous population of modern-day Mexico and the United States in the 16th century. Smallpox was not specific to this region, but compared to other times, it is in this place and time that it caused the greatest damage. It is believed to have been brought by European explorers and as Dave Roos in the article ‘How 5 of History's Worst Pandemics Finally Ended’ states that it, “killed three out of ten people it infected and left the rest with pockmark scars.” It is believed that it killed around 56 million people.

Spanish Flu is the third deadliest pandemic in history. This deadly flu is caused by a virus and is a form of an influenza pandemic. It shook the world from 1918-1920, which was during World War I. Owen Jarus states that Spain was neutral during the war and was able to report the pandemic. The name was associated with the country even though it didn’t originate or spread in Spain. It is estimated that around 500 million people were infected by the pandemic and the death toll exceeded 50 million people. The soldiers recruited from various parts of the world in WWI, spread the flu by bringing it back to their countries. As Bryan Walsh in the article, ‘Covid-19: The history of Pandemics’ states: “Some 50 to 100 million people died in the 1918 influenza pandemic – numbers that surpass the death toll of the entire World War I.”

The fourth deadliest pandemic (now epidemic) is HIV/AIDS, which began in 1981 and has continued to the present day. Until now, it is estimated that around 35 million people have died from it. The virus is assumed to have developed from a chimpanzee virus and transferred to human beings. As Owen Jarus states, “Now, about 64% of the estimated 40 million living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) live in sub-Saharan Africa.” Even though there is no cure, thanks to the medication developed in the 1990s, people can at least lead a normal life by following a regular treatment.

We find the fifth deadliest epidemic in the distant past, from A.D. 541-542 in the Byzantine Empire. The plague was named after the then ruler of Byzantine, Emperor Justinian. As Dave Roos states, the plague came to the capital, Constantinople, from Egypt by fleas and rats that came with the grain paid as tribute to the emperor. It is assumed to be the first case of the Bubonic Plague and estimated to have killed more than 25 million people, taking the lives of 5,000 people daily. As mentioned above, the same bubonic plague was also the cause of the Black Death.

The number of plagues throughout history is plenty, but I think the above five are enough to give us a glimpse of our vulnerability. More than any war and natural accident, pandemics hold the record for the highest death toll inflicted on mankind. While human conflicts and natural calamities are limited to a certain time and place, pandemics have a grim way of spreading. We are not just victims of plagues; we are also the breeding grounds and the transmitters. Civilization has brought us closer, but this very global proximity is also proving to be dangerous in our current struggle with COVID-19. My intent here is not to shock anyone, but to spread awareness in us. It is only when we know the danger fully that we can take the necessary measures to reduce such occurrences as well as minimize their impact.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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