Black Death & COVID-19

Since the novel coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan China towards the end of 2019, more than 113 million people have been infected with the virus according to Worldometer[1]. Wordometer also notes that across the world, over 2.5 million people have succumbed to the virus with over 89 million people recovering from the virus[2]. Earlier on in 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus outbreak as a global pandemic[3]. Expert agree that there is no one definition of a pandemic. Nevertheless, an outbreak of an illness-causing pathogen is declared a pandemic when it becomes prevalent across the globe. While most of coronavirus cases were only recorded in China, the outbreak was classified as an epidemic. When significant number of corona cases were reported in various nations across the planet such as South Korea, United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, and the USA saw the upgrading of the virus’ status from an epidemic to a pandemic. A comparison of COVID-19 with one of the most devastating pandemics in word history, bubonic plague aka “black death,” can help show the similarities and differences between the two outbreaks.

Mortality Rates

The bubonic plague killed an estimated 30 – 50 percent of the European population during the 14th century [4] (almost 100 million deaths and an estimated 200 million deaths globally[5][6]). A research done to investigate whether there was a certain predisposition for death due to black plague or whether the plague killed indiscriminately showed that the older population was more likely to die than the younger one. The research also showed that people who suffered poor health as could be observed through the various observable physiological stressors also suffered a higher  risk of death than their healthier peers during the outbreak[7].The CDC reports that during the recent years, between 1,000 and 2,000 are afflicted with the plague but notes that the actual figure is plausibly higher[8]. By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has claimed more than 2.5 million lives across the planet[9]. As can be observed, the black death has plausibly claimed more lives than coronavirus. Nevertheless, one should consider that COVID-19 is relatively new while black death has been around for centuries thus having enough time to pile up its casualties.

Spread and Speed of Transmission

Unlike COVID-19 which is a viral infection, the bubonic plague was a bacterial “zoonic infection” caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis and transmitted by fleabites from fleas typically found in rodents like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and field mice[10]. The CDC has listed flea bites as the most common form of bubonic plague transmission. People can also be infected with bubonic plague when they come into contact with infected flesh or bodily fluids[11]. The organization also notes that cases of bubonic plague transmission between humans via respiratory droplets are rare and has not been recorded since 1924[12][13]. In contrast, coronavirus is transmitted from human to human especially during instances of close proximity with infected person(s)[14]. The virus can also be contracted when an individual comes into contact with an infected person or surface. Health experts have warned that one can become infected with coronavirus simply by being exposed to respiratory droplets containing viral particles[15]. These particles are produces when an infected person talks, sneezes or coughs. The particles can then come into contact with one’s mouth, nose or eyes; effectively infecting the person[16].

Scapegoats of Black Death and COVID-19

History has shown that with almost any form of suffering, human beings will resort to blame game as the incentive to blame an outgroup grows – a scapegoating effect[17]. During the COVID-19 outbreak the Chinese people and other communities of Asian descent have suffered discrimination majorly in the western countries. Conversely, in Asian nations religious minorities and immigrants have been blamed. Good examples of the same is how Muslims have been targeted in India[18]. Caucasians and Africans have also suffered similar treatment in China. People from East Africans and Asians have also been singled out in the Middle East[19]. It is evident that during pandemics, minority groups are usually persecuted. Looking back, one can observe similar tendencies when the bubonic plague spread across Europe. A well-known effect of the bubonic plague is the persecution of Jews across Europe[20]. Jedwad et. al that each of the 363 European cities had Jewish communities; approximately half of which were either expelled from the cities or killed[21]. Non-Jews are recorded to have come up with various claims to justify the persecution of Jews often pointing to the Jews being the primary cause of the people’s suffering[22]. Jedwad et. al.’s analysis shows that even at zero percent mortality rate, there was a 40% chance that a Jewish community would be persecuted and when mortality rate rose to 20% persecution probability rose to 80%. However, when mortality rates rose past 20%, probability of persecution dropped noticeably.

Medical Reactions (Preventative Curative Actions)

 Symptoms of plague often appear within 7 days of infection and may include tender and swollen lymph nodes, headache and fever[23]. Once a patient is diagnosed with black death, s/he is placed on antibiotics as a curative measure[24]. Individuals prone to being infected with the plague are given prophylactic antibiotics as a preventive measure against infection. Though 40% to 45% of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic[25], signs of infection include digestive issues e.g. diarrhea, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, loss of taste and/or smell, dry cough, and shortness of breath. Preventive measures against COVID-19 include physical distancing, observing personal hygiene, and wearing of face masks as well as taking a vaccine against the virus. At the moment, curative measures against the virus are yet to be developed.

Social, Political, and Economic Implications

There exists a consensus that the outbreak of pandemic is usually influenced by pre-existing socio-economic inequalities and differences[26]. As has been observed above, pandemics have the potential to help engineer and fuel hate, discrimination and disunity among previously harmoniously co-existing communities. Such scenarios have been exemplified by the discrimination and scapegoating of certain people or societies relative to their social predispositions. Nevertheless, as some societies scapegoated others, various other societies are brought together by the pandemics in a bid to support each other. This happened with the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim residents of Damascus who united for prayer and supplication during the black death[27].

In the same light, researchers have observed that pandemic disproportionately affected different group of people often relative to their political class and relative economic ability[28]. During the bubonic plague, research shows that the members of higher social class and royal families rarely contracted the plague which in turn fueled social unrest and class tensions as those in power worked to regain their grip. On the other hand, the outbreak of coronavirus has driven already marginalized communities into disproportional suffering (e.g. the suffering of black communities)[29] while others are omitted from vital records altogether (e.g. the omission of Native Americans in the coronavirus database in US)[30]. Recognizing that some people may be disproportionately prone to suffering than others should be a major motivation point that leads authorities and jurisdictions to effectively address the impacts of pandemics. In so doing, their efforts can enable minimize suffering brought about by political, social and economic inequalities.

In conclusion, despite the various similarities and differences between the pandemics that have inflicted humankind in the recorded past, there are vital take-aways that current and future generations should note. The pandemics have taught earthlings that they must remain vigilant before, during and after pandemics. Appropriately high levels of surveillance help increase necessary image of a pandemic’s impact and impactful curative and preventive measures. Pandemics have also taught humankind that quarantine and physical distancing is effective towards slowing and curbing the spread of a pathogen. While it may be of little to no consolation, the history of pandemics can now teach humankind that previous generations have weathered similarly deadly pathogens and future ones will probably face others too.

Bibliography

Britannica. “Black Death | Definition, Cause, Symptoms, Effects, Death Toll, & Facts | Britannica.” Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death.

CDC. “Ecology and Transmission | Plague ,” July 31, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/plague/transmission/index.html.

———. “Frequently Asked Questions | Plague .” Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html#cases.

———. “How Coronavirus Spreads ,” August 28, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html.

Howard, Jenny. “Plague (Black Death) Bacterial Infection Information and Facts,” July 6, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/the-plague.

N. Dewitte, Sharon. “Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death.” PLoS ONE 9, no. 5 (May 7, 2014). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0096513.

Oran, Daniel P., and Eric J. Topol. “Prevalence of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infection?: A Narrative Review.” Annals of Internal Medicine 173, no. 5 (September 1, 2020): 362–67. https://doi.org/10.7326/M20-3012.

R, Jedwab, Johnson N, and Koyama M. “Pandemics and the Persecution of Minorities.”  VOX, CEPR Policy Portal, May 3, 2020. https://voxeu.org/article/pandemics-and-persecution-minorities.

Rebecca, Nagle. “Native Americans Being Left out of US Coronavirus Data and Labelled as ‘other’ | Native Americans | The Guardian,” April 24, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/24/us-native-americans-left-out-coronavirus-data.

S., Erdman. “Black Communities Account for Disproportionate Number of Covid-19 Deaths in the US, Study Finds - CNN,” May 6, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/05/health/coronavirus-african-americans-study/index.html.

Sewell, Katie. “Coronavirus vs Black Death: Which Is Worse? COVID-19 or the Bubonic Plague? | Express.Co.Uk,” July 7, 2020. https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/1252395/coronavirus-vs-black-death-plague-worse-covid-19-news-update-bubonic-plague.

Susanna, Throop, Olbrich Morgana, Eckenrod Tiffini, Furgele M, Mazullo L, and McSwiggan A. “Analyzing the Past in the Present: The Black Death, COVID-19, and the Ursinus Quest • History • Ursinus,” May 15, 2020. https://www.ursinus.edu/live/news/4682-analyzing-the-past-in-the-present-the-black-death.

T, Newman. “COVID-19 vs. Previous Pandemics,” April 19, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/comparing-covid-19-with-previous-pandemics.

Worldometer. “Coronavirus Update (Live): 113,617,092 Cases and 2,520,834 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Pandemic - Worldometer,” February 26, 2021. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/.

Z, Khuhro. “From the Black Plague and Cholera Outbreak to Covid-19, Humans Have Always Been Quick to Shift Blame,” April 28, 2020. https://scroll.in/article/960366/from-the-black-death-to-covid-19-we-have-always-resorted-to-blame-game-when-faced-with-epidemics.


[1] Worldometer, “Coronavirus Update (Live): 113,617,092 Cases and 2,520,834 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Pandemic - Worldometer,” February 26, 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/.

[2] Worldometer.

[3] Katie Sewell, “Coronavirus vs Black Death: Which Is Worse? COVID-19 or the Bubonic Plague? | Express.Co.Uk,” July 7, 2020, https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/1252395/coronavirus-vs-black-death-plague-worse-covid-19-news-update-bubonic-plague.

[4] Sharon N. Dewitte, “Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death,” PLoS ONE 9, no. 5 (May 7, 2014), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0096513.

[5] Jenny Howard, “Plague (Black Death) Bacterial Infection Information and Facts,” July 6, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/the-plague; Britannica, “Black Death | Definition, Cause, Symptoms, Effects, Death Toll, & Facts | Britannica,” accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death.

[6] Britannica, “Black Death | Definition, Cause, Symptoms, Effects, Death Toll, & Facts | Britannica.”

[7] N. Dewitte, “Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death.”

[8] CDC, “Frequently Asked Questions | Plague ,” accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html#cases.

[9] Worldometer, “Coronavirus Update (Live): 113,617,092 Cases and 2,520,834 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Pandemic - Worldometer.”

[10] CDC, “Frequently Asked Questions | Plague .”

[11] CDC.

[12] CDC, “Ecology and Transmission | Plague ,” July 31, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/plague/transmission/index.html.

[13] Sewell, “Coronavirus vs Black Death: Which Is Worse? COVID-19 or the Bubonic Plague? | Express.Co.Uk.”

[14] Newman T, “COVID-19 vs. Previous Pandemics,” April 19, 2020, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/comparing-covid-19-with-previous-pandemics.

[15] CDC, “How Coronavirus Spreads ,” August 28, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html.

[16] CDC.

[17] Jedwab R, Johnson N, and Koyama M, “Pandemics and the Persecution of Minorities,”  VOX, CEPR Policy Portal, May 3, 2020, https://voxeu.org/article/pandemics-and-persecution-minorities.

[18] Khuhro Z, “From the Black Plague and Cholera Outbreak to Covid-19, Humans Have Always Been Quick to Shift Blame,” April 28, 2020, https://scroll.in/article/960366/from-the-black-death-to-covid-19-we-have-always-resorted-to-blame-game-when-faced-with-epidemics.

[19] R, N, and M, “Pandemics and the Persecution of Minorities.”

[20] Z, “From the Black Plague and Cholera Outbreak to Covid-19, Humans Have Always Been Quick to Shift Blame.”

[21] R, N, and M, “Pandemics and the Persecution of Minorities.”

[22] Z, “From the Black Plague and Cholera Outbreak to Covid-19, Humans Have Always Been Quick to Shift Blame.”

[23] CDC, “Frequently Asked Questions | Plague .”

[24] CDC.

[25] Daniel P. Oran and Eric J. Topol, “Prevalence of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infection?: A Narrative Review,” Annals of Internal Medicine 173, no. 5 (September 1, 2020): 362–67, https://doi.org/10.7326/M20-3012.

[26] Throop Susanna et al., “Analyzing the Past in the Present: The Black Death, COVID-19, and the Ursinus Quest • History • Ursinus,” May 15, 2020, https://www.ursinus.edu/live/news/4682-analyzing-the-past-in-the-present-the-black-death.

[27] Susanna et al.

[28] Susanna et al.

[29] Erdman S., “Black Communities Account for Disproportionate Number of Covid-19 Deaths in the US, Study Finds - CNN,” May 6, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/05/health/coronavirus-african-americans-study/index.html.

[30] Nagle Rebecca, “Native Americans Being Left out of US Coronavirus Data and Labelled as ‘other’ | Native Americans | The Guardian,” April 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/24/us-native-americans-left-out-coronavirus-data.