It is common among politicians these days to repeat many times that ‘nobody expected something like this [the coronavirus pandemic] to happen’, or that ‘nobody has seen anything like this before’. However, this is completely untrue.
The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is not (and will not) be the only virus causing thousands of deaths across countries and continents. Throughout history, epidemies (and pandemics) have been unfortunately ubiquitous. Virgin-soil epidemics, such as COVID-19, are especially violent because they were previously unknown and thus people are immunologically almost defenceless against them.
Among the many examples of epidemics in history, smallpox is perhaps one of the most famous ones. It raged Athens in 430 BC causing the dead of 25% of its population. The same epidemy rose the death toll in Japan many centuries later; yet the number of deaths were exponentially higher in Mexico and Peru in the 16th century upon the arrival of the Spaniards (between 30-60% of the total population).
As if that was not enough, an epidemy known as cocoliztli (in Nahuatl ‘illness, disease’) raged the already decimated population of Mexico only 25 years later. A recent excavation of an epidemic cemetery at Teposcolula-Yucundaa, Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and subsequent ancient DNA analyses, have linked the ‘cocoliztli’ epidemy of 1545 with Salmonella enterica. Measles, influenza, and typhus fever, among other diseases, worsen the situation in America causing the death of 80- 90% of its population within the first century of the Spanish conquest and colonisation. This might seem as an exaggeration for many, but the last estimations using archaeology, geography and historical evidence are pretty accurate, particularly for Mexico and Peru where there is substantial demographic information before the arrival of the Spaniards.
The impact of epidemics always depends on health and social conditions. Indigenous people in the Americas had never been exposed to European diseases beforehand and therefore were defenceless, as we too are now against coronavirus. Nevertheless, there were other important factors that played a crucial role in the expansion and acuteness of diseases. Spaniards’ forced resettlement and labour of Indigenous communities, as well as starvation, helped spread the diseases and increased the death toll. Today too the number of people who die of coronavirus is to a large extent determined by living conditions. Access to water, soap and sanitation is still a privilege in many countries, and class and wealth play a crucial role in getting infected and in surviving.
It is still not clear for how long the COVID-19 can survive on clothing, but we know that textiles were used as biological weapons to spread diseases against Indigenous population in the Americas. In 1763, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America suggested the following: ‘You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.’ And indeed British subordinates gave infected blankets from Fort Pitt’s hospital to the Delaware and Shawnee communities spreading smallpox among them. Biological warfare unfortunately became pervasive from the 20th century onwards.
Researchers are readily working on a vaccine against coronavirus and studying its different strains. The Black Death too, as many other diseases, was caused by different strains of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, as archaeologists and bioanthropologists have recently demonstrated through ancient DNA, one of the reasons it was so persistent in Europe from the 14th till the 18th century, with estimates of deaths raging from 30 to 50%. The Black Death is a classic example of the emergence of rapid infectious disease and its long-lasting persistence, which led to the first legislation requiring quarantine in history (quarantine is hardly new). A Decree of 1377 of the Rector of the city of Dubrovnik-Ragusa officially issued quarantine, with the obligation for those coming from infected areas to confine themselves for four weeks on the islet of Mrkan or in the town of Cavtat for disinfection. Moreover, those who did not obey the quarantine were fined (does it sound familiar?).
We have seen these days how people in Italy, Spain, Britain, and New Zealand entertain themselves during the lockdown singing from their balconies and homes. During the Black Death, people also resorted to music due to its therapeutic qualities or to continue with their religious rituals.
So yes, we have seen – or better: went through – all this before.