Sundin column: Pandemics, past and present
As I See It
The world is fighting to defeat a Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 3.2 million people worldwide (nearly 1.2 million in the U.S.) causing nearly 230.000 deaths worldwide (over 68,000 in the U.S.). Although these numbers are sobering, the world has experienced worse pandemics and epidemics in the past. In the year 250 an epidemic that started in Carthage spread to Rome, killing as many as 5,000 people per day; and in 541-42 the Justinian Plague took a much greater toll.
The world’s deadliest pandemic in the total number of people dying was the bubonic plague that came out of Asia in 1347 and spread throughout Europe and North Africa, killing a third to a half of the population over the next five years. Known as the “Black Death,” it was spread by the bite of fleas that infested rats carried by ships. As the plague also killed most of the rats, it went into remission, but there have been periodic recurrences until 1900.
The only pandemic that even came close to the Black Death was the 1918 influenza, called the “Spanish Flu” though it had no connection with Spain. It is estimated to have killed 50–100 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S. The population of the U.S. in 1918 was only 100 million, so the death rate was 675 per million compared to 194 deaths per million from the coronavirus (so far).
In terms of the rate of death, by far the most deadly epidemic was caused by European diseases (primarily smallpox), contracted by the Native Americans who had no immunity to them, resulting in fatality rates as high as 90 percent. Settlers anxious to displace the natives, even contaminated blankets they sold them with the smallpox virus.
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A variety of influenzas have now been showing up each year, and we attempt (with somewhat limited success) to develop an inoculation to protect us from those expected to be the most prevalent. Since 1920 the U.S. has experienced 9 million–36 million cases of influenza each year, hospitalizing 140,000 to 700,000 and causing 12,000-56,000 deaths annually. These numbers are not far from what we are seeing in the current pandemic, but this battle is far from over.
Now let’s look into the current pandemic. It is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million, when a worker in a wet market became infected with an animal virus, or it may have escaped from a laboratory. From that small beginning it has spread throughout the world like wildfire — first into Italy, Spain and France with little or no forewarning, and into the U.S. which ignored forewarnings. The accompanying table gives statistics on the impact of the coronavirus on the U.S. and other countries as of May 1.
Country: Population | Cases per Million | Deaths per Million | Deaths per 100 Cases
Spain: 9M | 4,898 | 510 | 12
Italy: 62M | 3,339 | 452 | 13.5
U.S.: 330M | 3,324 | 194 | 5.8
U.K.: 65M | 2,631 | 415 | 15.8
France: 67M | 2,493 | 358 | 14.4
Germany: 80M | 2,038 | 88 | 4.3
Austria: 9M | 1,722 | 67 | 3.9
Canada: 36M | 1,500 | 83 | 5.5
New Zealand: 4.5M | 1,470 | 20 | 1.4
S. Korea: 51M | 215 | 5 | 2.3
China: 1,379M | 64 | 3.3 | 5.1
Taiwan: 23M | 17 | 0.3 | 1.8
The Case and Death per million numbers from China may be intentionally understated, but indicate that China did quickly realize the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak and took action to confine it to the Wuhan area. Responding to early warnings immediately and rigorously accounts for the low figures for New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. The high figures for the first four European countries are evidence of the little or no advance notice they had before it hit them. The lower figures for the rest of the European countries and Canada are because they took precautionary measures within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the threat. The U.S. had the same warnings, but chose to ignore or downplay them for several weeks and finally took action too little and too late. Like Nero supposedly fiddling while Rome burned, our President Trump, who was in a state of denial, prevaricated while the coronavirus spread to all parts of the country, taking tens of thousands of lives and shattering the U.S. economy. (The low death rate is a credit to our health-care efforts.)
“As I See It” appears on occasion in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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