Coronavirus or Covid-19 Context
As the Gauls used to say, “the sky has fallen on our heads” in the smallest and most pernicious form possible: a virus. Destructive and treacherous, born in a P4 laboratory in China in the region of Wuhan, and about which the wildest rumors and speculations are circulating: the coronavirus called Covid-19, because it came in 2019 and, although it is just another coronavirus like the flu, it is unnerving in a century where we thought this kind of devastation was dead and buried. Yet the Covid-19 epidemic is far from being a first in world and human history.
Before a journey through time on the great pandemics that have struck the world from antiquity to the 20th century, a little etymological detour.
Epidemic or pandemic, same difference?
The word epidemic comes from the Greek “epi”, meaning above, and the Greek “demos”, people. Above the people, it can therefore be interpreted as spreading to a large number of people. In the medical context: a contagion for example. However, this contagion remains confined to a well-defined geographical location.
If the contagion affects animals and not humans, then it should be called an “epizootic”.
The word pandemic comes from the Greek word “pan”, which means all, unlike epidemic, it has no geographical restrictions, and therefore applies in case of propagation to the population of a whole continent or even the whole world. Nowadays, only the WHO is authorized to declare a pandemic.
Pandemics in World History.
The World Health Organization declared on March 12, 2020 that the Covid-19 epidemic, which has been growing exponentially in an alarming way around the world since the end of December 2019, could be called a “pandemic.”
This is an alarming situation for our ultra-controlled century in which we believe ourselves protected by controlling everything.
We have a real lack of distance to apprehend the situation with calm, because if the situation is catastrophic, it is not the most deadly and other plagues like famine kill every day much more than the coronavirus, but this is passed under silence by the media; Not enough salesman or no personal interest?
If we delve into the history books, we will find interesting testimonies that can enlighten us as to the future course of action.
The comparison inevitably goes to the Spanish flu, nicknamed the “mother of all pandemics”, which struck during the last months of the First World War. However, the comparison with the scourge of our contemporary times ends there. Covid 19 is a small player compared to its elder brother of 1918-1919, which reached between one third and one half of the world’s population, and killed between 20, 50, and even 100 million people, depending on the estimate. The deadliest of all pandemics, but certainly not the first. Let’s dive into history.
The plague of Athens in the 5th century BC
Ironically, the first recorded pandemic was in Greece, where the word “pandemic” comes from. It occurred in the 5th century BC. At that time, the Greek civilization was at its peak, flourishing and influencing the whole Mediterranean basin.
Between 430 and 426 years, a wave of typhoid fever coming from the north of Africa (Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya) strikes the city of Athens at the time when it was at war against the kingdom of Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. According to the accounts of Thucydides, it would have carried away almost half of the inhabitants (between 75 and 100.000 people) of the city-state, which counted about 200.000. The most famous of them was “the First Citizen of Athens” the General Pericles. His death will sign the decline of Athens and the end of the age of Pericles.
The Antonine plague strikes the Roman Empire at the end of 165 or the beginning of 166
It is one of the first major epidemics well documented. This “Antonine plague”, which occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, caused 10 million deaths between 166 and 189 due to the smallpox virus. It started at the end of 165-beginning of 166, in Mesopotamia, during the Parthian campaign of Verus and reached Rome in less than a year.
The pandemic will last at least until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, and probably during the first part of the reign of his son Commodus.
Justinian’s plague weakened the Eastern Roman Empire between the sixth and eighth centuries
Justinian’s plague, also known as “pestis inguinaria” or “pestis glandularia” in Latin, was the first confirmed plague pandemic (doubts remain as to the exact viral origin of previous plagues), which occurred between the 6th and 8th centuries. It will ruin the efforts of the emperor Justinian to restore the greatness of Rome. It will also prepare the ground for the arrival of the Arab conquerors under the banner of Islam in the following century …
It strikes Constantinople from February 542: quickly, thousands of people die every day without anyone being able to bury them. The whole social and economic order collapsed, the markets no longer functioned, and people could no longer find food. In total, it is probably almost half of the population of Constantinople, which had more than 500 000 inhabitants, which disappears in a few weeks.
The pandemic reached its peak in the second half of the sixth century. However, it would remain present for another two hundred years, arriving in waves (there were about twenty of them). Gregory of Tours called it the “Disease of the groins, the buboes having a propensity to develop on this part of the human anatomy.
For some, this epidemic originated in Egypt. For others, it would have come from Central Asia and would have been propagated via the Red Sea route. Whatever its exact geographical origin, it was carried by early trade. Estimates of the victims vary from 25 to 100 million deaths. That is to say a third to half of the population of the time. At the beginning of the plague, the Eastern Roman Empire enjoyed considerable military and economic power. Its impact will weaken it and prevent it from re-founding a unified Roman Empire due to a real economic disaster. Without money and with an insufficient number of men, Justinian could not repel the attacks of the Persians.
Europe victim of the Black Death in the Middle Ages, from 1347 to 1353
“The great plague” of the Middle Ages has remained, in the West, deeply embedded in the collective memory. And yet, compared to the loss of Justinian, it caused fewer deaths. Due to Yersin’s bacillus or Yersinia Pestis transmitted by fleas feeding on the blood of rats, this infection affected the lungs and killed within a few days. From 1347 to 1353, this bubonic infection killed between 25 and 34 million people in a Europe in full demographic, agrarian and economic expansion (40% of the population); leaving a profound economic, demographic, social and religious impact.
“In the village of Givry, in Burgundy, the village priest kept a population register, a very rare thing at the time. We know that there were 643 deaths, in a village of 1500 people, between August 1 and November 15, 1348.”
The dismay of the rulers and the population, convinced that they were victims of a manifestation of divine wrath, in front of this tragedy led to a series of atrocities. Convinced that the Black Death was the result of a divine calamity, many citizens tried to find those responsible. The scapegoat at the time was the Jewish people, who were blamed for poisoning the well water. Pogroms were set up and tens of thousands of Jews were wiped out in just a few days.
In reality, the factors for the spread were war and then trade. The outbreak is said to have come from India or China. Some sources tell us that during a siege of Caffa [a Genoese port on the Black Sea in the Crimea], the Mongols threw diseased bodies over the walls to reach the inhabitants, as a weapon of biological warfare. It is known that the plague was brought to the West by a Genoese ship, which docked in the port of Marseille in 1347. Constantinople, Messina, Genoa, Venice and in France, Marseille: in one year, the rich port cities around the Mediterranean basin, then prosperous, were affected one after the other. It was at this time that the “quarantine” was introduced.
Yellow fever raged on several occasions in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries
Yellow fever, which refers to the jaundice of those affected, is also called “amaril fever”, “typhus amaril” “vomito negro” (“black vomit”) or American plague, is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Contrary to popular belief, the disease did not originate in Asia (a continent it never touched), but in the tropical regions of the Americas where a large epidemic affected the Yucatan in Mexico in 1648. Yellow fever affected a large number of Europeans, putting a stop to a colonization that would have been even more rapid and brutal.
The French were heavily confronted with yellow fever
Other waves will follow through time. At the end of the 18th century, the disease killed 10% of the population of Philadelphia. In 1821, a ship from Cuba ravaged Barcelona, killing 20,000 people. The French often had to deal with yellow fever, which they called “typhus amaril” when they were confronted with it in Guyana in 1763. The few survivors of the epidemic took refuge on the Devil’s Islands, which became the Salvation Islands for the occasion. Yellow fever also caused a disaster in the French expeditionary corps sent to Saint-Domingue in 1802 to quell the native uprising led by Toussaint Louverture.
According to the WHO, yellow fever still strikes today in South America (notably Venezuela) and in sub-Saharan Africa (Angola).
The second cholera pandemic caused panic in France in 1832
Around 1826, cholera morbus or English cholera appeared in India, reached Russia in 1830, then Poland and Finland. This deadly and previously unknown disease, causing abundant and acute diarrhea leading to death by dehydration, reached Berlin in 1831, the British Isles in February 1832 and France in March of the same year, spreading panic. In Paris, the first case of cholera was reported on March 26, 1832. 100,000 people died, including Casimir Périer, the Minister of the Interior at the time, who had already taken preventive measures at the end of 1830.
The pandemic inspired Jean Giono’s novel “Un Hussard sur le toit” (1951) adapted in 1995 for the cinema by Jean-Paul Rappeneau with Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez.
The etymology of the term cholera is not debated. It is a well attested word in ancient Greek, χολέρα / cholera, which was already used by Hippocrates to designate the disease we know. Passed into Latin in the same form, it is the origin of the adjective choleric in 1826, and the word anger. The hypothesis that it comes from the Hebrew cholira “bad disease” is not likely.
This pandemic will kill more than one million people in Europe.
The disease arrived in Quebec with Irish immigrants in 1832 and killed 1,200 people in Montreal and 1,000 in the rest of the province, then spread to Ontario and Nova Scotia. Passengers brought it into the United States through Detroit and New York. The pandemic reached South America in 1833 and lasted until 1848, killing 52,000 people in two years.
ACurrently, the WHO estimates that “there are nearly 3 million cases and over 95,000 deaths from this disease worldwide each year.
The return of the Black Death in the middle of the 19th century.
In the second half of the 19th century, the plague made a comeback and reappeared in the Chinese highlands. From Asia, it would then spread to the East, mainly around the Red Sea. Ports were prime targets, hence the quarantine of cities, mainly ports, until the middle of the 20th century, such as Marseille in 1902. The last one in Europe was set up in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1945.
However, this period will see a glimmer of hope with Louis Pasteur who will manage to create an attenuated vaccine. In honor of Jenner, he coined the term “vaccine”.
Spanish flu wreaks havoc at the end of World War I in 1918.
La The Spanish flu pandemic, which appeared at the end of the First World War, perhaps as early as 1916-1917, affected between a quarter and a third of the world’s population. It was a much more effective killer than the Great War, killing between 25 and 100 million people, including 165,000 in France, and was responsible for the explosion of the birth rate during the 1920s. Its human and avian origin had nothing to do with Spain, because it broke out in the United States, then in Europe, before spreading to all continents. The virus was so named because at that time, Spain, which was not involved in the First World War, was not subject to censorship. Unlike its neighbors who tried to hide their deaths, it published information about the disease freely and publicly, hence the name “Spanish flu”. A real human and sanitary disaster, the Spanish flu lasted two years.
The most devastating pandemic in history will affect almost the entire globe. Despite a mortality rate of “only” 2 to 4%, it will kill tens of millions of people, including 165,000 in France. Most of the victims died from bacterial superinfection, which started after 4-5 days and led to death about ten days after the first flu symptoms, in the absence, at the time, of antibiotics
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