Is COVID-19 Our Modern Plague?

Coronavirus Modern Plague
We will survive. Art by Sophia Turek

It’s hard to believe that something so small can kill us in epidemic numbers, not to mention utterly and completely change life as we know it. The COVID-19 virus is about 50 times smaller than a red blood cell and contains a single strand of RNA with 26,000 base pairs. By way of comparison, the human genome contains 9 billion DNA base pairs. It goes to show that, at least in nature, powerful forces can come in very small packages.

The Black Death

COVID-19 has been called the modern plague. COVID vs. the Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, is a comparison worth pondering, given COVID-19’s devastating effect on the world. But the Black Death was the most lethal pandemic in human history, killing an estimated 75 million people during the outbreak in mid-14th century Eurasia and North Africa. Almost half the population of Europe died, as did 30-90% of those infected. The plague caused flu symptoms and pneumonia. But unlike COVID-19, it was caused by a bacteria and not a virus. It spread through flea bites and contact with animals (especially rats) but not easily from humans to humans. The bubonic plague still exists today, with about 650 cases being reported yearly. Thankfully, it is curable with common antibiotics.

Unfortunately, a key, disease-fighting concept was entirely unknown during the 14th century: hygiene and public health. This life-saving idea only gained popularity in the 19th century once it became accepted that microoganisms can cause disease (germ theory of disease). However, the idea of quarantining to limit spread of disease was introduced during plague, and it is still a powerful weapon used today to combat disease. Case in point: our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Spanish Flu

Despite the advent of quarantine, the second largest pandemic in history, The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20, was devastating. The death toll from this flu was 40 million lives (death rate 10-20%) as it tore across the world and infected over one-third of the world’s population. The modern age of global travel was upon us for this one and helped this virus reach all corners of the world. This flu was also unusual in that it took no prisoners and was lethal to healthy individuals as well as the elderly and weakened ones. A brutal combination for a worldwide pandemic.

HIV Pandemic

The third largest pandemic the world has seen is HIV-AIDS. Since first discovered in humans in 1976, it has killed 36 million of us. This is a virus of particularly subtle but brutal design, spreading through body fluids from sex (how do we stop this?), saliva and blood, and weakening healthy immune systems to the point that otherwise benign infections or diseases become lethal. Although there is no HIV vaccine, thankfully modern medicine has developed sophisticated antiretroviral medicines that enable patients to have normal life expectancies.

Yes friends, we as a species have seen worse pandemics than COVID…and survived. Notably, the exact same health care measures learned in response to these awful pandemics, including hygiene and quarantine, are as relevant now as then. And because of our diligence in maintaining these measures, the COVID virus, although here to stay, will not rank among the top pandemics in history. Although our tools to combat disease are increasingly powerful, we must remember that we are part of nature, and not apart from it.

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