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How Every Pandemic In Human History Has Been Exactly The Same, On A Human Level

Medical History | April 11, 2020

From the Black Plague to the flu of 1918, global pandemics have been affecting the vast population Earth for thousands of years. This kind of global threat is a byproduct of the proliferation of transportation between countries by human beings—the easier we travel, the worse things get. It's not just the catalyst for pandemics that's remained the same since pandemics were striking, however; it's the way people have handled these population-cutting illnesses throughout time. Obviously, we haven't always had social media to let our friends and neighbors know how we're doing or a global news network to tell us how to act during a time of crisis, but the concepts of quarantine, social distancing, and personal hygiene have always been at the forefront of a pandemic.

(Getty Images)

Plague Ships

The number-one way infectious diseases spread across a town, country, or the entire world is travel. One person gets it, and then they infect someone they know, and then they split up and infect more people. It's the way epidemics have happened forever, but international travel means people across the world can be afflicted with the same disease. Suddenly, you've got a pandemic.

In 1348, one of the worst pandemics to hit the planet, the bubonic plague, occurred when a ship landed in England's Southampton port carrying passengers who had been ravaged by the disease. It spread through the country and wiped out its population by the thousands.

(About History)

Plague Crops

During a pandemic, crops and livestock are one of the many things that unfortunately fall by the wayside. Regardless of the era, people can't tend their fields or take care of their animals, and in some cases, there was just nowhere sell their product. During the plague of the 14th century, the countryside was filled with ruined crops that had been left to rot, which led to deaths from starvation as well as illness.

(The Royal Family)

King Edward's Command

In the same way that we're being told to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, and stay even further away from other people than we usually prefer, King Edward III ordered his people to up their personal hygiene to beat the Plague. He took drastic measures to keep the disease from spreading, ordering his men to dig a mass burial site for victims of the pandemic in Smithfield and clean the streets, which were ...

…foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisioned [sic] to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease.

There was no hand sanitizer in the 1300s, but this sweeping measure was a major step toward wiping out the illness.

(Town And Country Magazine)

The Quarantine Of Italy

One of the earliest forms of mass quarantine occurred in Italy in 1347. They closed their ports to keep the Plague from reaching their country, and anyone who disobeyed the order had to isolate themselves for at least 30 days. Ships had to wait in the Venetian Lagoon until officials decided they could disembark. Italians even created a quarantine island on Lazzaretto Vecchio, where victims of the bubonic plague were forced to sit and fester. It's believed that thousands of people passed away on the island.

(Alchetron)

Historical Social Distancing

"Social distancing" has become a term of derision in the modern era, but this necessary way of life is nothing new. Throughout the annals of history, whenever a plague struck, people always resolved to stay indoors and keep away from the rest of the world. When the Plague struck again in 1563, the mayor of London ordered the hanging of blue crosses from the homes of the infected, and citizens were told to stay indoors for at least 40 days. Only one uninfected person from each home was allowed to go into town as long as they carried a white rod with them. If anyone disobeyed the law, they were fined or imprisoned.

(Wikimedia Commons)

17th-Century Travel Bans

When an illness spreads through contact, the best way to keep it from infecting everyone is to cut contact with the rest of the world. In the 17th century, London merchants were stuck at the port of Rye while their goods were aired out to make sure that they didn't carry the illness with them. If anyone was coming from an area known to be a hot spot of infection, they weren't allowed to move freely across the country.

In 1630, the English government placed guards across London to keep people from traveling to or from an infected area. Before long, infected people were removed from quarantine and placed in hospitals known as "pest houses."

(Only In Your State)

Spanish Flu Closures

In October 1918, when the so-called Spanish Flu swept the globe and took millions of lives with it, Minneapolis officials effectively closed the city. Schools, churches, and anywhere else people gathered were closed indefinitely to keep the illness from exacerbating. Nearby St. Paul, on the other hand, remained open until November of that year. By waiting an entire month after Minneapolis to close their businesses, the town essentially fostered the epidemic, resulting in a death rate about 20% higher than its twin city.

As frightening as this sounds, both areas bounced back economically over the next few years. A study performed by M.I.T. found that areas whose efforts to fight the pandemic were most aggressive also experienced the biggest economic upturn following its abatement.

(Pinterest)

The Church Problem

Whether or not to go to church can be a difficult decision in frightening times. During a pandemic, mass gatherings are a breeding ground for death, and going to church during a high holiday can be just as bad as riding a packed subway train. During the flu of 1918 and 1919, Christians were unsure how to handle Easter celebrations, with many churches simply closing their doors to keep their congregations safe. Weatherford College government and history instructor John Flanagan explained that this decision was no different from what people have had to do throughout history:

They did do what today we're calling social distancing, but basically, you stayed away from people so you wouldn't get sick.

It was the same in the early 20th century as it was in the 14th and it is in the 21st: Staying home was and is the best way to stay safe.

Tags: isolation | medicine | plague | spanish flu

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.