5 Pandemics in history more deadly than the Coronavirus

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Black Death Florence history

Black Death in Florence

The coronavirus has been causing panic and alarm around the world. Not a day goes by without more headlines, articles and posts about the speed with which the virus is spreading in China. So far the official figures from the CPP are over 70,000 infected and at least 1,700 dead (we all know the real figures are much higher). Outside of China the numbers infected are small but growing. The coronavirus is certainly concerning, but compared to these five outbreaks from history it’s nothing yet. Hopefully the coronavirus (COVID-19) won’t become anywhere near as severe as any of the following pandemics.

1. The Black Death

The Black Death. It’s very name conjures up images of mass death and suffering: entire villages wiped out; men in plague masks taking cart fulls of bodies to mass graves. People covered in boils dying in agony, with the people who try to care for them often dying in turn. It’s the stuff of nightmares. It was called Black Death due to lymph nodes becoming blackened and swollen, the buboes that give it it’s proper name bubonic plague. It makes you glad to be living in the 21st century.

Between 1347-1351 the Black Death swept across Eurasia leaving devastation in it’s wake. Europe was hit the hardest by the bubonic plague, with at least 50% of the population dying in four years. In total over 50 million are thought to have died – it killed so many people it completely altered the landscape of Europe forever. It’s been called the greatest catastrophe ever

2. The Spanish Flu

Everyone knows the tragically high number of lives claimed by the first world war, but many people aren’t aware that the influenza pandemic that followed it claimed many more. In 1918-19 the influenza known as the Spanish Flu (even though it originated in the US) spread like wild fire throughout the world. The spread of the virus was aided by the mass movement of people ate the end of the first world war, and the poor living conditions of many. The Spanish flu is thought to have killed up to a staggering 50 million people by the time it died away. The mortality rate was 1 in 5 and a third of the worlds population was inflicted.

This pandemic is the first case of a H1N1 pandemic, with the Swine Flu in 2009 being the second. If the coronavirus or any future influenza outbreak gets as bad as the Spanish Flu we’ll be in trouble. Thankfully medical care has moved on astronomically in just a century. 

3. The Plague Of Justian

Justian is often considered the greatest of the Byzantine Emperors, but his name is also synonymous with one of the worst plagues in history. In 541 AD rats on grain barges from Egypt brought a new plague to the rest of the Byzantine Empire. This new pestilence went on to kill millions across the empire, decimating entire cities and nearly crippling the empire. The capital Constantinople lost 40% of it’s population, with 10,000 dying a day at one point. The plague spread beyond Byzantium across Europe and Asia, killing at least 25 million people.

As you might have guessed this plague was the same as the Black Death, experts think this was the first recorded case of bubonic plague in history.

4. The Antonine Plague

Named after the Roman Emperor Marcus Antonine, this pandemic lasted between 165-180 AD. It’s thought the disease started in Seleucis in Mesopotamia, before being spread to Italy and much of the empire by soldiers returning from a siege there. It decimated the Roman army and killed over five million people, mainly in Italy and the eastern empire. Rome was particularly badly hit, with even one Emperor allegedly dying of the disease.

It’s not known for certain what the disease was, but historians have speculated it may have been smallpox or measles.

5. The Third Cholera Pandemic

The dreaded Cholera caused seven major pandemics. The mostly deadly of the pandemics was probably the third pandemic from 1846-1860, which claimed at least one million lives. This pandemic originated in the Ganges delta, before spreading across Asia, Europe and much of the world. During the outbreak in London British doctor John Snow discovered the disease was spread by contaminated water. His discovery helped end the epidemic, and aided the worldwide fight against cholera.