THE Covid-19 pandemic provides us an opportunity to study history, and probably understand the settings of pandemics and their relationship to the environment and governance.
Historically, pandemics are not new. These are as ancient as human communities. For instance, the “Black Death” is quite similar to the Justinian Plague. The symptoms of those afflicted by both plagues were described by an expert as the “swellings” in the Old Testament story of the Philistines who stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites.
Both plagues (Justinian 527-565 CE and Black Death 1347 to 1351) caused thousands of deaths daily during their occurrences in Europe.
During the height of its first occurrence, the Antonine Plague, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius (155-235 CE) killed an estimated 2,000 deaths per day in Rome. In the second outbreak, “the estimate of the rate of death was much higher—upwards of 5,000 per day. It has been suggested that a quarter to a third of the entire population perished, estimated at 60-70 million throughout the empire,” according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
A book entitled, “the Fate of Rome, Climate, Disease, and End of Empire” suggests that the series of plagues that decimated the population and Rome’s legions conspired with the changing climate and related factors to bring about a post-Roman Empire age.
Earlier, another history-changing pandemic happened during the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BCE). Thucydides provided a vivid account of a variety of ailments which affected the afflicted people: “Violent heats in the head; redness and inflammation of the eyes; throat and tongue quickly suffused with blood; breath became unnatural and fetid; sneezing and hoarseness; violent cough’ vomiting; retching; violent convulsions; the body externally not so hot to the touch, nor yet pale; a livid color inkling to red; breaking out in pustules and ulcers. (2.49-2.50)”
Let us move forward to the modern age with the influenza pandemic. This is how a physician described, in a letter, the meaning of this pandemic to soldiers living in a U.S. Army cantonment in France in 1918. The letter was published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, USA.
The men were diagnosed with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza.
Later, “they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. A few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes. The sight is horrible with an average of about 100 deaths, men dropping like flies, per day.
The letter reported “an outrageous number of nurses and doctors who died fighting the pandemic in the cantonment. “It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce... It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle. An extra-long barracks have been vacated for the use of the Morgue, and it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed and laid out in double rows.... Good By old Pal, God is with you till we meet again (Grist, 1979).”
A 2002 epidemiologic study on the 1918 Influenza pandemic estimates the deaths at “between 50 and 100 million (Johnson and Mueller, 2002).”
Today, a plague has once more befallen the globe. I wish there were more 2002 studies on emerging pandemics besides those studies on what has already occurred.
Such studies would have predicted and prepared the citizens of the globe to respond with the occurrence of modern pandemics like the 2020 Covid-19. It takes decades to understand the threat or what lies beneath such upheavals.
Looking at what we have, the story of the Antonine Plague tells us a lot. The pattern of the disease is nauseatingly familiar with the rest. You can read a pandemic story like you are simply changing their names and dates of occurrence. An ancient pandemic can yet feel so modern like the Spanish flu, Influenza, SARS, MERS, and other coronaviruses.
The Antonine plague began in the East. That is what recorded history says. It is not clear from whom it originated, whether it was from animals, human beings (Chinese, traders, and soldiers), a curse, or from the gods, but people always seek to find scapegoats among their fellow humankind.
One thing is certain: it overwhelmed the world as it crossed borders out into the four winds - east, west, north, and south, crossing borders, and then oceans.
As we are witnessing with the Covid-19 virus, fear and rumor (fake news) spread faster than the contagion causing panic. The health and medical system was baffled. Governments and their institutions proved very fragile and failed to contain it. Communities were quarantined or went into self-quarantine. The economy plunged. The tally of dead bodies piled up.
The thought can be jarring to some. Given this ancient script of history repeating itself, we ask, how could we not have overcome pandemic diseases with science?
Science has its use and advantage right now but here is what we can learn from pandemics. Diseases can kill and take away our lives, but we do not need to surrender our humanity. The doctors, health workers, priests, pastors, nuns, and leaders of history who confronted these pandemics at enormous personal cost, inspiring people to keep calm and carry on, teach us just that. They are true leaders, not a modern Xi Jinping who went to Wuhan only after the pandemic was contained. When the world is sick, leaders should not be like him, or a Donald Trump, who keeps blaming other people but could not accept one.