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What the history of the pandemics tells us about the coronavirus: analysis


One of the good things about studying history is that no matter how bad things get, you can almost always find something from the past that was worse. This is also true of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which has now engulfed the world.

Perhaps the most comparable pandemic is the Spanish flu, which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. It infected about 500 million people and killed 50 million. To put this in perspective, the entire population of India, according to the 1921 Census, was about 250 million.

The Spanish flu took place almost exactly a century ago, but it had several similarities to Covid-19. But this was not the only pandemic that had similarities to Covid-19.

The three cholera pandemics of 1817-1824, 1826-1837, and 1846-1860 claimed more lives than any other disease outbreak in the 19th century. Originally beginning in India and Central and Southeast Asia, cholera spread to China, from where it reached Europe via trade routes and Russian soldiers. It spread to Poland through Russian troops, who were brought in from various parts of the Tsar’s empire to suppress the uprisings. It then spread from Poland to East Prussia, forcing the Prussian authorities to close its borders to Russian transport. By 1831, the situation was so dire that the British government issued quarantine orders for any Russian ships sailing to British ports. But it was too late. The pandemic had already spread to Britain, France, and most of Europe and Asia. Hundreds of thousands died. More than a million died in the Russian Empire during the third pandemic alone, and at least 100,000 in the most affected nations with each successive wave. Therefore, we can safely say that the death toll was in the millions.

The 19th century cholera pandemics had the closest similarity to today’s coronavirus pandemic. Both started in Asia and spread to other parts of the world, deeply affecting specific nations (Russia for cholera, Italy and the United States for coronavirus so far). Both also spread to other parts of the world through these specific nations, and the populations affected, unlike the world population that contracted the Spanish flu, were not weakened by any major warfare, at least not on the First Industrial scale. World War.

Cholera pandemics, like Covid-19, also called for ship quarantine measures and spread mainly through people who had gone abroad and brought them back to their countries. These pandemics required social distancing to prevent the spread of the infection. Like Covid-19, the cholera pandemics brought with them great economic losses: not only were ships unable to enter many ports, but they also halted maritime trade, but land trade was also severely affected. The Silk Road and other trade routes in Central Asia, which accounted for most of the land trade, could not be used due to both the threat of contracting the disease and the anti-cholera steps taken by the Russian Empire, which controlled the most of Central Asia. At that time. Large financial losses occurred, especially by the British and the Russians, the two parties most affected in terms of trade. Both relied on their remote empires for resources and wealth.

India can learn from the cholera pandemic, as it started here, and within months hundreds of thousands were infected or killed. At least 100,000 Indians and 10,000 British troops died in the first pandemic (1817-1824). This was partly due to not practicing adequate social distancing, which requires the active participation of people. It is evident that both an active impulse from the government and a deep citizen commitment and support are needed for social distancing and other public health measures.

In Russia, the incompetence of Tsar Nicholas I’s regime in handling the pandemic in the vast rural areas and the population of his vast empire caused more than a million deaths. Although he finally ordered measures against cholera, the damage had already been done. The delay in responding and the vulnerability of large countries, with a substantial rural and floating population, must be taken into account in any response.

To end on a positive note, no matter how bad they were, how many millions killed or how much they affected the economy, all these pandemics were defeated, and the human race came out stronger than ever. Once upon a time smallpox terrified the world, but now it is almost eradicated. The Black Plague was hit. The Spanish flu was beaten. The cholera epidemic was defeated. We have recovered and emerged stronger than ever from all these diseases. I am sure that we can also beat the coronavirus.

Shiv Malik is a class 9 student, Vasant Valley School, New Delhi

The opinions expressed are personal.

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