One thing is certain-lockdowns are a whole lot easier when you can get your food delivered. And the driver’s route is planned by a computer algorithm, not a man with a telephone and a piece of paper. Vaccines help. So will anitbiotics or antivirals when the next one hits. But how were things in the good old days before all those pesky scientists and doctors came along and forced us to have to think about things? Here is a brief survey of some plagues from the past, which we hope helps to lend perspective.
Antonine Plague c AD 165-170, recurring big until c. AD 190 Cause: almost certainly smallpox. Species Jump: Virus probably originated by mutation from rodents and or camels, both common along the trade routes of the time. Cure: pray to the God Apollo, whose temples seemed to have boomed. Mortality: Smallpox can kill 70% of infected persons, but best estimates for this plague are around 30-50% across the Roman Empire. Long term consequences The demographic catastrophe began the decline of the Ancient World.
Plague of Cyprian AD 248-270 Cause: thoroughly unpleasant haemorrhagic fever, perhaps like ebola. Species jump: more pesky rodents. Cure: pray to Jesus Christ Mortality: could be anything up to 50% depending on where you were. Long term consequences: This one has been a bit of a Cinderella in the history books, but according to Professor Harper its economic, political and cultural consequences were extreme. These were the years when Christianity changed from a small cult to a world religion. Damage was so great that the Roman Empire began the process of splitting into two halves.
Plague of Justininian AD 541-550, recurring in nasty waves until c AD 750. Cause: Black Death from bacillus Yersinia pestis. Species jump: From black rat Rattus rattus via fleas. Cure: Pray to any Saint or Deity you could think of. Mortality: Opinion is divided, but a good guess for black death ususally comes out around 40-50% (see below) Long term consequences: Justinian’s Eastern Empire was almost on the point of getting back the West when this plague blew their chances for good. Recrudescences of this plague sapped the Byzantines’ economy and army so much that they were reduced to a tiny fragment, and Islam occupied most of the lost provinces.
Black Death AD 1347-1355.,although it never really went away, and is still endemic in many countries. Cause, Mortality, Species jump, Cure: see Justinian above. Long term consequences: The jury is still out. In some countries wages rose, as there was hardly anyone left to work. Some see it leading to a new crisis of faith which in turn led to developments like the Renaissance and Reformation.
Spanish Flu AD 1918-1920 Cause: virus in the flu family Orthomyxoviridae. Proteins on the outside, RNA inside-sounds familiar? Species jump: the orthomyxoviridae are endemic in pigs and poultry, hence the repeated epidemics of flu we got every year. Mortality: varied by country, but estimates for the peak years suggest a minimum of 17 million and a possible maximum as high as 100 million world wide. Cure: aspirin, arsenic, strychnine and epsom salts. It is unlikely any worked much. Due to prevalence of mask wearing, a lively anti-mask movement soon sprang up, especially in San Francisco.
There have been other pandemics, so we apologise to all those Greeks, Goths Assyrians and others who have missed a mention. There will be more to come; so a donation to a medical research charity or sending your child off to become a medical researcher might be a very good investment.
Kyle Harper The Fate of Rome Princeton University Press 2017
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