The ongoing novel coronavirus – officially known as COVID-19 – has demanded global attention, spurred panic amongst communities and has left governments scrambling to implement strategic measures. Originating in Wuhan, China in December, the virus has gone on to affect over 100 countries, contributing to over 100,000 confirmed cases and roughly 4,000 deaths worldwide.

Rightfully, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. While the coronavirus hasn’t yet reached pandemic levels, WHO have warned that the threat of it has become ‘very real’.

Pandemics have frequently occurred throughout history and in some cases paled drastically in comparison to the COVID-19. Here are five of the most fatal pandemics to sweep across the globe:

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  • Plague of Justinian (541 AD – 542 AD)

Considered the first pandemic in recorded history, the Plague of Justinian was certainly a discouragement for the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I, who was in the process of rebuilding his empire. When the plague struck, it ravaged the empire’s economy and military. At one point, around 5,000 people were dying daily, exhausting resources and labour and leaving many bodies to rot on the streets. It spread from the Eastern Roman empire, reaching North Africa, Asia, Arabia and Europe. According to data, the outbreak killed around 30-50 million people which made up half of the world’s population at the time. Even after it subsided, the plague had many recurrences until over 200 years later in 750.

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  • The Black Death (1347 – 1353)

Known as the Great Bubonic Plague, the Great Plague or Pestilence, this pandemic ran rampant throughout Europe killing almost a third of the continent’s population. It reportedly took Europe 200 years for its population to recover. Before it arrived in Europe, the plague affected parts of China, India, Persia (modern day Iran), Syria and Egypt. It was discovered in Europe in 1347 after a ship docked at a Sicilian harbour. The ship was carrying dead sailors along with those who were barely alive, covered in boils oozing pus and blood. Other symptoms included fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhoea, aches and pains, and eventually death. The bacterium responsible is known as Yersinia Pestis which can cause various plagues in the form of pneumonic, septicemic and bubonic.

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  • Spanish Flu (1918 – 1919)

Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain. As the outbreak occurred during the First World War, it was named after Spain as it was not involved in the war and had no wartime censorship in place, therefore, could report on it freely. Caused by a virus known as the H1N1 influenza, which was thought to have avian (bird) origins, the outbreak affected 500 million people – up to 1/3 of the world’s population. According to estimates, around 20-50 million people died, with around 675,000 deaths in the United States. While it isn’t exactly clear where it originated, the virus managed to reach even the remotest of places including the Pacific Islands and the Arctic. It is considered by many as one of the most severe pandemics in recent history.

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  • Asian Flu (1957 – 1958)

The Asian Flu was the second major influenza pandemic to occur in the 20th century, following the Spanish Flu. It was originally identified in East Asia where it quickly spread across the world, contributing to between 1-2 million deaths. The flu was caused by a virus known as influenza A subtype H2N2 which scientists believed was a mixed species strain made up of both avian and human influenza viruses. It particularly affected school children, young adults and pregnant women with the elderly having the highest rates of death. However, unlike the Spanish Flu, technological advancements and the introduction of antibiotics limited the mortality rate considerably. The strain of flu later evolved into the H3N2 which caused the Hong Kong Flu between 1968-69.

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  • HIV/AIDS (1981 – ongoing)

While HIV was first identified in 1959, there was no understanding of whether the patient in question ever developed AIDS because of it. It was not until the 1980s that AIDS, the late stage of HIV, was first reported. It is thought to have originated in non-human primates in Central or West Africa. Since the 80s, the disease has killed more than 30 million worldwide. While there isn’t a cure available, millions of people diagnosed with the disease have been able to live a relatively normal and healthy life with treatment. To this day, there are many misconceptions around HIV/AIDS, most commonly that it only affects homosexual couples. The disease can spread in a multitude of ways including unprotected sex, contaminated blood transfusions, needles or from mother to child transmission.

Aisha Mohamed