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COVID-19: Recalling Famines, Plagues And Infectious Diseases In History

Amid COVID-19, one cannot help recalling some of the worst famines, diseases and mass extinctions in history, some of the famines were deliberately exacerbated and killed millions of people over the centuries.

Let us start with famine, which for thousands of years has been humanity’s worst enemy. Until recently most humans lived on the very edge of the poverty line, below which people succumb to malnutrition and hunger. A small mistake or a bit of bad luck could easily be a death sentence for an entire family or a village. If heavy rains destroyed your wheat crop, or robbers carried off your goat herd, you and your loved ones could starve to death. Misfortune or stupidity on the collective level resulted in mass famines. When severe drought hit ancient Egypt or medieval India, it was not uncommon that 5 or 10 percent of the population perished.

A few examples will substantiate what has been stated above: about 2.8 million French i.e. 15 percent of the population starved to death between 1692 and 1694, while King Louis IV, was dallying with his mistresses in Versailles. The following year, 1695, famine struck Estonia, killing a fifth of the population. In 1696, it was the turn of Finland, where quarter to a third of the population died. Scotland suffered from severe famine between 1695 and 1698, some districts losing up to 20 percent of their inhabitants.

Famines and the resultant deaths were a common phenomenon in China throughout its history. During 1928-1929, the death toll on this count was 6 million. The famine again struck China in 1937 when 55,000,000 inhabitants were affected in the Province of Sichuan and another 2,000,000 in Western Honan, “creating 3000 square miles of complete silence.”

The situation in India was not much different. From 1770 to 1900, it is estimated that 25 million Indians died due to famines. In the 107 years from 1793 to 1900, only an estimated 5 million died due to wars around the world, whereas in just ten years from 1891 to 1900, 19 million died in India on account of famines. The callousness and the pursuit of extortionist policies of the British Raj had much to do with the famines which caused major deaths in Bengal (1770 and 1943-1944), Madras (1782-1783) ,Agra (1837-1838) and Bombay (1905-1906). Is it not tragic and shameful that during the Orissa famine of 1866, while a million and a half starved to death, the British India government exported 200 million pounds of rice to UK!


In the past, bustling cities visited by a ceaseless stream of merchants, officials and pilgrims were both the bedrock of human civilisation and an ideal breeding ground for pathogens. People lived there in constant fear that an epidemic might suddenly erupt and destroy their entire family in one swoop.

The most infamous outbreak, the black death, began in the 1330s somewhere in eastern or Central Asia, when the flea-dwelling  bacterium yersima pestis started infecting humans bitten by the fleas. From there, riding on an army of rats and fleas, the plague quickly spread all over Asia, Europe and North Africa, taking less than twenty years to reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Between 75 and 200 million people died – more than a quarter of the population of Eurasia. In England, 4 out 10 died, and the population dropped from a pre- plague high of 3.7 million people to a post- plague low of 2.2 million. The city of Florence lost 50,000 of its 1,00, 000 inhabitants.

Infectious diseases

Until the modern era, humans blamed diseases on bad air, malicious demons, and angry gods, and did not suspect the existence of bacteria and viruses. People readily believed in priests, but they could not imagine that a tiny flea or a single drop of water might contain an entire armada of deadly predators. The Black Death was not a singular event, more disastrous epidemics struck America, Australia and the Pacific Islands following the arrival of the first Europeans.

When the smallpox virus reached Mexico in September 1520, through a Spanish flotilla, at least a third of the population of Tenochtitlan, the capital of Aztec which had 250,000, perished. Mexico which was home to 22 million people in September 1520  lost 8 million people by December 1520. It is estimated that almost 95 percentage of  Native Americans perished out of a population of 90 million to 120 million due to the diseases such as smallpox, measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, scarlet fever, trachoma, malaria, typhus, influenza, cholera, bubonic plague, leprosy, syphilis and yellow fever brought by the Europeans.

The Mayas in the Yucatan Peninsula believed that three evil gods–Ekpetz, Uzannkak and Sajokak — were flying from village to village at night, infecting people with the disease. The Aztecs blamed it on the gods Tezcatlipoca or Xipetotec or perhaps the black magic of the white man.

Two centuries later, on 18 January 1778, the British explorer Captain James Cook reached Hawaii which then was populated by half a million people. Captain Cook and his men introduced the first flue, tuberculosis and syphilis pathogens and subsequent European visitors added typhoid and smallpox. By 1853, only 70,000 survivors remained in Hawaii.

In January 1918, soldiers in the trenches of northern France began dying in their thousands from a virulent strain of flu. Within a few months, about half a billion people– a third of the global population–came down with this virus. In India, it killed five percent of the population ( 15 million people ) . On the Island of Tahiti, 14 percent died, while in Samoa, the toll was 20 percent. Altogether this pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people in less than a year. As compared to this, the First World War killed 40 million people from 1914 to 1918.

During the last hundred years, technological, economic and political developments have created an increasingly robust safety net separating humankind from the biological poverty line. Mass famines still strike some areas from time to time, but they are exceptional, and they are almost always created by human politics rather than by natural catastrophes. There are no longer natural famines in the world, there are only political famines.

The most startling example is of China. A few decades ago, it was a byword for food shortages. Millions of Chinese were starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, and the experts routinely predicted that the problem would only get worse. In 1974, the World Food Conference was convened in Rome where the delegates were told  that there was no way for China to feed its billion people and that the country was heading towards catastrophe. In fact it was heading towards the greatest economic miracle in history as for the first time in its recorded history, China is now free from famine.

Indeed in most countries today overeating has become a far worse problem than famine. In 2014, more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected  to be overweight by 2030. In 2010, famine and malnutrition combined killed about one million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.

The same holds true in respect of plague and infectious diseases, as both the incidence and impact of epidemics have gone down dramatically in the last few decades. In particular, global child mortality is at an all-time low, less than 5 percent children now die before reaching adulthood. This miracle is due to the unprecedented achievements of the 20th century medicine, which has provided us with vaccination, antibiotics, improved hygiene and a much better medical infrastructure. A global campaign of smallpox vaccination was so successful that in 1979 the World Health Organization declared that it had been completely eradicated  and wiped off the face of the earth.

The following chart gives a fair view of the pandemics that caused huge devastation for years long to the world population from 1500 BC till date.


Name of Disease        Discovery Date        Vaccine / Treatment     How Long Disease Persisted
Smallpox                     1500 BC                   AD 1706                                    3296 years
Polio                            1400 BC                   AD 1948                                    3348 years
Cholera                       460 BC                     AD 1885                                    2345 years
Measles                       AD 500                    AD 1971                                   1471 years
Rubella                        AD 1619                  AD 1971                                      352 years
Spanish Flu                 AD 1918                  AD 1920                                     3 years
HIV /AIDS                   AD 1980                  AD 1995                                    15 years
Ebola                           AD 2014                  AD 2019                                    5 years
COVID-19                  Dec. 2019                 March 2019                         Ongoing(experiments)

Unlike the past when smallpox kept killing people for 3296 years, polio for 3348 years and cholera for 2345 years, the potential killers of the late 20th Century and the ensuing 21st Century such as AIDS (1980), SARS (2002-2003), bird flu (2005), swine flu (2009) and Ebola (2004) have all been effectively reigned in.

Though the latest mysterious pandemic COVID-19 (coronavirus) detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019 is spreading left and right all  over the world, and has brought 7.5 billion people of our planet to their knees, there is a great likelihood that its vaccine would be available to the general public by the early 2021 if not before. There are encouraging signs from the research laboratories in China, Russia, UA, Germany, UK and Australia and Pakistan.

The lesson of our history is clear. By investing in science, research and education we can secure the futures of our children.

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  1. Tayyab Khalid April 12, 2020

    Loved the way you covered all the aspects of historical plagues under the enlightenment of unknown facts and figures.

  2. Tayyab Khalid April 12, 2020

    I think human as you reported suffered from many disastrous plagues throughout history. Reson is that the carbon-based life form that finds itself curious about supernatural beings in the universe is not meant to survive this planet because there is no alien except it. And our extinct to defend against these viruses is not made for this life because there is no such thing in heaven. Man will suffer from his own lab rats until he finds a new life with no such disease awakening up in the melted ice at the bottom of the earth.
    May Allah always be with us this kind in upcoming situations.

  3. Monazza Aslam October 30, 2020

    Amazing! Really well researched and, as always, beautifully articulated!


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