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Lessons from past epidemics and pandemics that have helped us in battling the COVID-19 pandemic

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Disease outbreaks have been prevalent since the dawn of mankind and have caused more deaths than wars and natural disasters combined. However, with medical sciences progressing faster than ever since the 18th century, the mortality number for the COVID-19 pandemic (1,092,124 deaths worldwide as of 14th Oct, 2020) is significantly lower compared to the previous pandemics and global epidemics – about 100 million people succumbed to the Spanish Flu worldwide a century ago (1918-1920). The mortality rates were even more massive before that- The Black Death caused by plague infestation took 200 million lives eradicating one-third of the global population at that time (1347-1351). However, humankind has always been robust and has learned from past experiences and continues to thrive in spite of the many outbreaks throughout the centuries. I have tried to highlight some of the major features of our response to the current pandemic and how our history with pandemics has influenced it.

Via the Berkeley Daily Gazette, 1918. The Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus.
  1. Quarantine and Social Distancing: This idea became widely popular throughout the world in order to curtail the spread of the virus because evidence suggests that it has worked in the past to tackle airborne diseases. The Spanish Flu was ultimately curbed in some communities of the United States after maintaining social distancing codes and those that did not follow social distancing suffered from high death rates. The word quarantine itself arose from the word quarantena used in Europe which meant the 40 days isolation period of ships at shore to ensure that nobody entering the country was infected with plague. As a result, many governments throughout the world have announced lockdowns at various times.
  2. Global Preparedness: A disease outbreak should not come as a surprise, given our history with them. They have been a part of our lives in the past and they will be in the future too. Our preparedness however, improves. Based on the data of previous epidemics, the WHO made a Comprehensive Planning Guide to tackle COVID-19 without much ado, that countries could take help of in planning their response to the pandemic. The aims of the guide included ensuring quick deployment of technical assets and assigning a well-equipped and well-informed task-force among others.
  3. Relying on Science: For the first time in our history of pandemics have we known exactly the identity of the pathogen from the very beginning of the outbreak. If it were not for the progress of science, it is very likely that our mortality rate would be much higher than it is now (mortality rate of course also relies on how deadly the pathogen is). Quick identification of the pathogen resulted in quick development of testing kits, medicinal approaches and research and the race to develop an effective vaccine. Large-scale testing and directional medical treatment has been indispensable in our response to the pandemic. Vaccination has also helped us eradicate diseases globally in the past. Small-pox was the first disease to be completely eradicated by vaccination. Time and again our scientific progress has helped us fight diseases.
  4. Counteracting misinformation: A classic example of how misinformation can aggravate situations is the global epidemic of HIV which rose to high levels in 1981. The public was under the impression that the disease spread only among men having sex with infected men and hence also provoked the already prevalent homophobic outlooks along with an ever-increasing infections. In the wake of the current pandemic, social media served as a platform for useful as well as bogus information. However, there have been large-scale efforts from various official bodies so as to give correct and helpful information to the masses via system generated recordings before phone calls, etc.  

On a lighter note, history tells us that this will end. On a darker note, history also tells us that will not be the last pandemic humanity suffers from. But hopefully, we will become more prepared in the years to come and make educated decisions.

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