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Worst plagues in Human History

Updated on March 3, 2020
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I might not be a medical expert, but I sure do love writing about diseases, especially ones that affect our history.

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Chances are that the word 'plague' is coming to our mouths more often than not in our daily lives, especially due to the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 Virus. Now that is an extremely dangerous situation, but what about other plagues that have struck our ancestors? Where does the recent COVID - 19 stand with regards to them? And, judging from past experiences in modern medical history with virus outbreaks, is the deadly COVID 19 virus heading for containment, or will it go out of hand? Only time will tell, and in reality, nobody knows where we're heading, but we can at least assume based on historical precedents, in which direction we're heading.

The Plague of Justinian's Era

Saint Sebastien, an early Christian saint and martyr, praying for Jesus to save a miserable gravedigger's life.
Saint Sebastien, an early Christian saint and martyr, praying for Jesus to save a miserable gravedigger's life.

Records say this plague killed approxiametly 20% of the human population at that time, despite some historians believing the numbers to have been greatly exaggerated. The virus that plagued Justinian's era was similar in characteristics to the Black death that emerged a couple hundred years later, coming from the same bacteria Yersinia Pestis in China that passes on to humans via the oriental rat flea. (Interesting factoid: That means this strain of bacteria has been the cause of millions of human deaths throughout european history. Just putting it out there) The virus is reported to have caused over 10,000 daily deaths in Costantinople alone. In comparison, COVID-19 is responsible for around 3000 or more deaths in the past 2 months. The Justinian Plague continued recurring sporadically throughout Europe & Asia for years, even causing widespread famines at the time.

Black death

The streets of a town hit with the plague
The streets of a town hit with the plague

Perhaps the most infamous of all plagues - the black death is known to have reduced the world population from 475 to 350 million. It is believed to have originated from East Asia, and then travelled along the Silk road to Crimea. It then was carried by rats along Genoese merchant ships to Europe via Italy. And I emphasise on Italy, because it was the Black Death's Wuhan, to the point where highly affected regions such as Florence only recovered after the 19th century. The desolation in Europe broke the barrier in family relationships, reaching a point where parents used to abandon their own children. The Welsh Poet Jeuan Gethin wrote, We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance.”The Black Death is also said to have affected the Middle Eastern regions, knowing that Geneose merchant ships were also spread throughout the Mediterennian Basin. One recorded statistic shows that Egypt's estimated death toll reached around 40% of its population.

Antonine Plague

Remains of people who died from the Antonine plague.
Remains of people who died from the Antonine plague.

This was perhaps the earliest recorded plague in human history. It occured during Aurelius's era. Its epidemic claimed the life of an emperor, brought down the Roman army, and wiped towns one after the other. The plague which was brought down upon the Roman people during Aurelius' era was also the subject of his final words: "Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others." He even said in his philosophical work, meditations, that the pesiltence around him is not as deadly as falsehood and evil behaviour. On a side note, as a result of the plague pandemic, drastic changes occured in literature due to the rising focus on superstition and magic.

The Great Plague of London

In perhaps the more malicious of moves in history, King Charles left his own city that was suffering from a plague, to the countryside, leaving his own people perish while they were quarantined under harsh conditions. An estimate of 75,000 to 100,000 people perished during the epidemic. One English reverend wrote, “Never did so many husbands and wives die together,” “never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave.” That was the bad part. The good part was that outbreak was the last in England's 400 year battle against the bubonic plague.

It is important to note that the infamous Great Fire of London also happened the same year, right after the plague. The mood in London became volatile to the point that the King at the time feared a full scale rebellion against the monarchy.

The Italian Plague 1629-1631

The plague was carried by German & French troops in their movement during the thirty years war. The troops then retired into central Italy, spreading the disease among the citizens and especially affecting areas such as Milan and Verona. An estimated 61% of the population of Verona perished during this time. Plague outbreaks sporadically ocurred throughout the following years, peaking especially during festivities and sad events, more specifically when people gathered, such as the carnival season in 1630 in Milan. Among the measures used to prevent the spread of the infenction were banishing victims into isolated islands, burning their clothes, and even all of their possesions.

Worst Plague in the reader's opinion

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So what about the COVID-19 again?

Well it was fairly impossible to contain a new infectious disease back during the middle ages, when people thought divine intervention was the root behind such natural tradgedies, so we'll give that to them. Now we have modern medicine, and such tradgic outcomes are no longer possible, or at least very unlikely. That's why I personally believe that the coronavirus is unlikely to cause a humanitarian disaster. But what about its situation now? It's quite unstable in many countries around the world right now, but if proper measures are taken, I myself don't imagine it going much further. It's true though, that some experts consider the COVID-19 to be far from containment at this point, and the fact that it's heading to the worse is quite alarming. I renew however, my hope that this is a passing situation, and that everything will go back to normal in a few weeks / months time. Because optimism is the most important thing, you know.


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