Pandemics are the worldwide spread of new infectious diseases. They have the power to reach the most remote islands of the world and even the Arctic Circle. Their death tolls can range from a few thousand to between 50 and 100 million before they are stopped.
The coronavirus outbreak has everyone glued to the news, causing anxiety worldwide. Borders are closed, flights are cancelled, and region-wide shortages of surgical facemasks are being reported. That being said, the World Health Organization is stopping short of calling the outbreak a full-blown pandemic, but rather an epidemic with multiple locations. Although the situation is severe, it is still not comparable to the deadliest disease outbreaks in history.
Death Toll: 32 million
Genetic history shows that the pandemic is likely to have originated from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo from non-human primates. As one of Africa’s most well-connected railway cities, the spread of the virus would not have been difficult. While there are many sub-groups of the virus, the HIV-1 subgroup M causes the majority of infections globally. Most victims do not die directly from HIV/AIDS, but diseases that take advantage of the patient’s weakened immune system.
Plague Of Justinian
Location: Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, Sasanian Empire
Cause: Bubonic Plague
Timeline: 541-542 AD
Death Toll: 25-50 million
Suspected as the first recorded occurrence of Bubonic Plague in history, at its peak the plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in the city of Constantinople, ultimately killing 40% of the city’s inhabitants. The spread of the virus is thought to have been caused by rats being transported on merchant ships from Egypt. Historians named the pandemic after Justinian I, the emperor at the time of the plague, and a survivor of the disease.
Cause: Bubonic Plague
Timeline: 1347-1351 (Peak)
Death Toll: 75-250 million
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, having killed an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population. It took 200 years for the world population to recover to its previous level. Fever and vomiting blood were common symptoms, with most victims dying within 2-7 days of infection. The plague disease spread by populations of fleas carried by various rodents, transported by merchant ships. New outbreaks were reported as late as the 19th century.
Death Toll: 50-100 million
The epicentre of the Spanish Flu outbreak is thought to have been a hospital camp in Etaples, France, and quickly spread to various military camps during WW1. It infected 500 million people around the world and killed between 3-5% of Earth’s population. Due to wartime censorship, many countries did not report about the illness. As a neutral country, Spanish papers were free to report on the pandemic, giving rise to the nickname “Spanish Flu”.