This is the Third Century in a Row With a Pandemic Within the First Twenty Years

Claire Killian

Mark Twain is often incorrectly credited with saying, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” While those words may not be his own, they are no less true. During our current global pandemic, people have been reflecting on past medical crises, how people responded, and what the consequences were. Within the last few centuries, there’s an eerie pattern. In 1817, and into the 1820s, the first great cholera pandemic took place, from 1918-1919 the world saw the Spanish flu wreak havoc on the post-WWI world, and now, in 2020, just the third month of a new decade we have coronavirus.

The 1817 cholera pandemic was just the first of seven pandemics, spreading 150 years until a vaccine was invented in 1885. Cholera is spread through water infected with dirt, pollution, or human feces. It ran rampant through Victorian London, but was mostly considered a poor persons disease, since the wealthy could get cleaner water. For many years, it’s source was unidentified. When soldiers in the world-dominant British navy got infected, they spread it to the far reaches of the British empire. This transformed cholera from an epidemic, concentrated in one region, to a pandemic spread across continents. Because so little was known about what caused and spread cholera, not to mention this was only at the dawn of modern medicine, it devastated populations as there were no preventative measures.

The Spanish flu of the newly post-WWI world has been getting a lot of airtime recently, as it is the most recent modern pandemic which resembles our current crisis. It is estimated that the flu, which originated from birds, killed around fifty million people globally. The first reports came from Kansas in early 1918, but by the spring of that year many Europeans were showing symptoms. Spain paid the most attention to the new disease, and documented it’s spread well, which is why we call it the Spanish Flu. This was still during the last few months of World War One, and with the heightened trade and international travel it’s no wonder why the flu spread to the degree it did. The Spanish flue is notable in that it hit young adults and teenagers particularly hard, a group, which due to their youth and overall health, tend to be unaffected by most great illnesses.

That brings us to today, with the coronavirus, believed to have originated from animals and first spread to humans in China. The proper name for it, COVID-19 denotes the type of virus, coronavirus, the strain, novel coronavirus, and year it was first identified, 2019. Within three months it had spread to one-hundred fourteen countries, infecting large percentages of the population and killing thousands. The danger of COVID-19 is that infected people can remain asymptomatic for up to two weeks, meaning that they can spread the disease to other people without realizing it. Additionally, symptoms in otherwise healthy people can be mild, leading them to believe they aren’t really sick, while endangering at-risk people (the elderly and those with underlying conditions) who come into contact with them.

If you had told someone from 1720 about the coronavirus they probably wouldn’t have been too bothered. For much of history, plagues have been a part of life. Pandemics sweep through every dozen years or so, but with modern medicine, that’s rapidly changing. Much of the prevalence of coronavirus is due to the fact that people don’t have any defense against it, very few have tests, and there are no vaccines. The numbers seem scary, and admittedly they are, but the vast majority who get coronavirus survive it, and that’s not necessarily true for any of the other pandemics mentioned in this article, or in the last few centuries.