The Spanish Flu shook the world from 1918 to 1919. Then, America entered the Roaring 20s. Surely that means that the Spanish flu was eradicated and had a clear ending…right? Wrong.
As much as we’d like to believe the end is in sight with the pandemic we are currently living through, the end may look different than we might imagine.
Time Magazine points out, “Here’s what we do know: in order for a pandemic to end, the disease in question has to reach a point at which it is unable to successfully find enough hosts to catch it and then spread it.”
Now, we know this is a sensitive subject, so we are not going to speculate or hypothesize about when and how the COVID-19 pandemic will end.
Instead, we are looking through seven different pandemic cases in history to gain some insight into how and when these events end. At what point did the disease or virus no longer have enough hosts to spread? Did it disappear completely or go into hiding?
We don’t know (or want to guess) about what will happen with today’s virus, but we do believe it is wise to be knowledgeable about pandemic patterns.
Case 1: The Plague of Justinian
The Plague of Justinian arrived in Constantinople in 541 BC by way of plague-carrying fleas on rats.
It is estimated to have killed between 30 million and 50 million people across Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Arabia.
According to Thomas Mockaitis, a history professor at DePaul University for The History Channel, “People had no real understanding of how to fight it other than trying to avoid sick people […] As to how the plague ended, the best guess is that the majority of people in a pandemic somehow survive, and those who survive have immunity.”
Case 2: The Bubonic Plague (aka Black Death)
According to The History Channel, the plague of Justinian never really went away and showed up again in Europe in 1347.
This time it was known as The Black Death and killed 20 million people.
People were a bit wiser this time, so they learned to isolate themselves from others who were infected.
Hence, the official beginnings of quarantine.
The History Channel reports, “Forward-thinking officials in Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa decided to keep newly arrived sailors in isolation until they could prove they weren’t sick. At first, sailors were held on their ships for 30 days, which became known in Venetian law as a trentino. As time went on, the Venetians increased the forced isolation to 40 days or a quarantino, the origin of the word quarantine and the start of its practice in the Western world.”
Case 3: The Plague of London
The plague never really went away.
Instead, it reappeared every decade or so “from 1348 to 1665—40 outbreaks in just over 300 years.”
The 1665 plague was the last, but it was also one of the worst. It was so bad that Londoners had to bury their dead in mass graves and shut up the sick inside their homes without help.
Again, the plague was not eradicated. The Conversation reports, “That very same state-wrecking plague bacterium remains with us even today, a reminder of the very long persistence and resilience of pathogens.”
Case 4: The Spanish Flu
After the Plague of London, the next global pandemic was the Spanish Flu.
The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 led to the deaths of more than 50 million people across the world and between 700,000 and 1 million in the United States.
The Spanish Flu began to spread in the spring of 1918. Even though America did its best to fight the spread of the virus, the second wave hit much worse.
The second wave hit between September and November 1918, resulting in 195,000 American deaths in October 1918.
Then, a third wave of the Spanish flu occurred during the winter of 1918-1919, resulting in even more deaths.
Historians claim the Spanish Flu pandemic came to an end in the summer of 1919. However, many experts also believe it never really went away.
According to The History Channel, “After infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 (a third of the global population), the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu receded into the background and stuck around as the regular seasonal flu. But every so often, direct descendants of the 1918 flu combined with bird flu or swine flu to create powerful new pandemic strains, which is exactly what happened in 1957, 1968 and 2009. Those later flu outbreaks, all created in part by the 1918 virus, claimed millions of additional lives.”
Remember how we mentioned The Roaring Twenties at the start of this article? This time of frivolity and big spending immediately followed the Spanish flu pandemic.
National Geographic suggests, “People will decide the pandemic is over, long before any governing body declares it so. It’s happened in the past: The 1918 flu hit in the throes of World War I, and as the fighting ended. […] The public entered the ‘Roaring Twenties’ despite the flu virus still circulating throughout the U.S. population.”
Case 5: The Swine Flu
Most of us are familiar with the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic. In 2009, it killed 200,000 people worldwide.
The influenza virus strain was not eradicated.
Instead, it morphed into a seasonal flu strain that still circulates today.
Case 6: Ebola
Ebola was discovered in 1976, and scientists believed it was close to being eradicated in 2016.
However, the virus found its way to animals, where it remained until 2018 when the virus broke out again.
Scientists refer to this phenomenon as viruses seeking animal reservoirs.
Case 7: Smallpox
While we don’t know the origin of smallpox, we do know that the disease killed more than 300 million people worldwide.
We also know when the last case appeared – in Somalia in 1977.
According to The History Channel, “Smallpox became the first virus epidemic to be ended by a vaccine.”
The vaccine was discovered by a British doctor in the late 18th century; however, it was not until mass vaccination campaigns throughout the 1960s and 1970s that the disease was fully eradicated.
What Experts Say About The Eradication of Viruses and Diseases
According to Financial Times, “Pandemics do finish but their endings are rarely neat. Diseases are seldom eradicated and outbreaks never end everywhere at the same time.”
Sadly, with the exception of smallpox, diseases and viruses are not eradicated. They mutate, go dormant, and revive.
Therefore, the ending of a pandemic is hard to pinpoint, as National Geographic explains, “There is no one definition of what the end of a pandemic means.”
What it really comes down to is how our society begins to move past the virus or disease, such as when deaths return to normal rates.
This is because, as National Geographic explains, “Most causes of past pandemics are still with us today. More than 3,000 people caught the bacteria that cause both bubonic and pneumonic plague between 2010 and 2015. […] And the virus behind the 1918 flu pandemic that ravaged the globe, killing at least 50 million people, ultimately morphed into less lethal variants, with its descendants becoming strains of the seasonal flu.”
Jagpreet Chhatwal, a scientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Technology, tells National Geographic, “If we can bring the death count down to a certain level and resume our lives normally, one could say the pandemic has ‘ended.’”
What We Can Learn from Pandemic Patterns
Let’s bring it back to the current pandemic. We saw cases surge earlier this summer. And most experts thought cases would skyrocket as schools opened back up, football stadiums were packed, and people were going to movies and concerts.
What happened instead? Cases plummeted.
The number of new cases fell almost 40% since September 1. Deaths have declined 13% since September 20. And hospitalizations are down almost 30%.
As we’ve seen in the last year and a half, and in past pandemics, our behavior can influence the outcomes of a pandemic to some degree. But as this fall’s dropping cases and history show us, pandemics don’t play by our rules.
Whether it’s 1520 or 2021, they all more or less play out in the same way regardless how hard we fight it. So the conclusion is that we don’t really know when this will end and this may never go away, just like the past ones never went away.
Consider the past, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply