How pandemics have changed the course of history

The earliest recorded history of a pandemic was around 430 B.C. in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. The disease was suspected to be typhoid fever producing symptoms such as fever, thirst and red skin. Since then, several other pandemics had taken place from the Antonine plague in 165A.D. which struck the Roman empire to the 11th Century pandemic of Leprosy in Europe to the bubonic plague which caused centuries of massive deaths worldwide from 1350 to 1855. Then 1817 saw the first Cholera pandemic which originated in Russia and spread by the British military to all the continents. Despite that a vaccine was created in 1885, the pandemic continued. The turn of the 20th century saw a pandemic in the form of the Spanish flu from 1918 – 1920 caused by an avian-borne flu which resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide. The 1980s saw the spread of the HIV/AIDS which was first detected in American gay communities but was traced to a chimpanzee virus from West Africa in the 1920s. Though there have been treatments, a cure is yet to be found. In 2003, SARS was found to spread from animals to humans in China, followed by 26 other countries. The virus infected the respiratory system and quarantine systems were successful in suppressing the disease. The latest pandemic is the COVID-19 which is again a virus of the respiratory system that has affected over a 100 countries resulting in thousands of deaths and counting. This also started in China and spread to other countries through infected people travelling from one place to another. Researchers are still studying the virus and are yet to come up with a vaccine.

It can be seen from the timeline many civilizations have witnessed massive deaths resulting in weaker economies, poverty and lack of labor class. On the other hand, it has pushed researchers and doctors to be able to document the various diseases and make vigorous research on the prevention, treatment and if possible, curing the disease. It should also be noted that there has been an evolution in the pandemics. In the early times, the pandemics were caused by different species of bacteria which changed to being caused by viruses. Although viruses are smaller than bacteria, they are more deadly. The virus is able to enter the host cell and use the cell’s resources to multiply, killing the cell in the process. The reproduced viruses then enter other host cells and the cycle continues. In contrast the bacteria doesn’t enter any host cell thus being detected by the immune system which produces antibodies to combat it. But in the case of virus which enters the host cell, it is difficult to be detected by the immune system which makes it to spread more easily and faster than a bacteria.

Another factor is the COVID-19 is asymptomatic and produces mild symptoms which gives it greater chances of spreading. This has caused quite a strain on the health care systems around the world and on the World Health Organisation (WHO). By the end of January, the WHO has claimed the disease as a “public health emergency of international concern” which resulted in the formation of guidelines expected to be followed by the public to curb the disease. This includes wearing of mask and social distancing. Gradually lock down has been imposed in many countries which has in turn resulted in massive job losses and shaken world economy.

Unfortunately this has also resulted in social inequality. In a time where the world should be united, the public and politicians have used this as an excuse to cause further hostility. The claims of this pandemic as a “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus” has led to a stigma on Chinese and other Asians. This has caused hatred, harassment and bigotry. Affected people can also live in fear of being sidelined from health services just because of racism.

Many aspects of our lives have been changed. Due to the lock down, people have gone virtual. Many have started more online classes, completed movies are being released on Amazon and even world leaders have to conduct meetings via videoconferencing. The pandemic has led to questioning the political and healthcare systems in different countries. Laura Spinney, a science journalist and author of a book on the Spanish Flu said that the pandemic “influenced the course of the First World War and arguably, contributed to the Second.”

Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University said that the pandemic will cause a shift of power from West to East. Where China, South Korea and Singapore had a faster response to curb the disease, Europe and America have been slow and haphazard. He also observed that as in the case of past pandemics which increased world power rivalry and reduced global cooperation, the same thing is happening now. Despite having incompetent leaders, people are turning towards their own governments which has resulted in a world that is less open and less prosperous.

US President Donald Trump has been heavily criticized for believing that the United States can act on it’s own. Joseph S. Nye Jr., another professor at Harvard University said “On transnational threats like COVID-19 and climate change, it is not enough to think of American power over other nations. The key to success is also learning the importance of power with others. Every country puts its national interest first; the important question is how broadly or narrowly this interest is defined. COVID-19 shows we are failing to adjust our strategy to this new world.”

No one knows for how much longer the pandemic will continue. There have been major concerns for the general public and despite our advanced technology, the numbers continue to rise everyday. On top of that there’s the political warfare between countries. There’s fear that just like the Spanish Flu resulted in nationalism and another world war, the same thing can happen with the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve forgotten a lot of the lessons that we learned after the Spanish Flu and other pandemics,” Spinney says. “We may be about to learn them again.”

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