The current COVID-19 outbreak has caused an unprecedented level of emergency across the globe. Having said that, it is no news that the world was stricken by epidemics that changed world history. After epidemics such as plague, cholera, smallpox and syphilis infected their first patients, they spread widely via means of transport. They haunted and plagued humanity while changing the path of history until vaccines and remedies were invented. Then, a look at the past patterns may give us a hint of how to overcome the current crisis.
Jennifer Wright’s “Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them” describes the history of epidemics that the world has suffered from the Antonine Plague to polio with a sense of humor. When the Great Bubonic Plague killed around a third of the European population, people believed that the disease can be treated by displaying raw onion slices home or consuming a spoon of crushed emeralds. Even doctors, clad in an eagle mask that was believed to counter the devil of disease, had a frog or a pigeon draw poison out of the patient’s body, which you may find silly. However, who knows if the future generations will look back and scoff at how we deal with diseases of our times?
The book focuses particularly on how epidemics changed world history and brought great leaders in. For example, as smallpox arrived in the New Continent during the 16th century taking the lives of 30 percent of American natives with no immunity to the disease, it helped Europeans conquer the territory with ease. Take cholera, a deadly water-borne disease. Unintentionally, it led to improvement in hygiene systems in cities after the 19th century.
Just as seen in the cases of the MERS and SARS outbreaks, threats of epidemics have only grown due to mass travel by air and pathogenic variations since the 20th century. As of now, it may be hard to foresee the consequences of the current COVID-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, it is clear that humanity has so far stood strong in the war against any kind of disease.