Pandemic Lessons: A Student’s Historical Guide

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Andrew Weindling ('22)

STANWICH ROAD/REMOTE – All it took was a pandemic to make screentime sanctioned by adults, open the door to wearing masks at banks, and close the doors of Broadway, the NBA, and Disney World.

But while today we think of COVID-19 as THE pandemic of all time, it’s easy to forget that humanity has dealt with massive-scale diseases in the past.   It’s just that there was no Disney World to close.

Perhaps most deadly was the infamous Bubonic Plague, or as it is better known as in pop culture, the Black Death.  This event restructured the world of the middle ages.  While the disease’s main period of destruction started in 1347, small outbreaks had happened previously in Europe and Asia.  Spread by rats who hitched rides aboard trade vessels, the Bubonic Plague was highly contagious, a trait that was only exaggerated by the densely packed and appallingly unhygienic cities of Europe. The Bubonic Plague would infamously turn the victim’s fingers, toes, and nose dark colors, and other symptoms included chills, welts covering victims bodies, and a fever. Historians estimate 20 to 50 million people died of The Plague. Mortality rates are thought to have been between 40 and 60 percent, and no cure was found during the disease’s period of effect.

The outbreak of the Influenza virus, also known as the Spanish Flu, in 1918, has more in common with the recent Coronavirus than one might think. Flaring up in pockets throughout Europe during the tail end of The Great War (1914-18), its effects were immediately felt. An estimated 50% of U.S. soldiers fighting in 1918 died from Influenza, not the war itself. After WW1, soldiers brought the virus back to their homelands, further proliferating the outbreak. Unsanitary living conditions and overcrowding also played a role in the spread of the virus. The death toll is estimated to be 20-40 million people, which makes the Spanish Flu the deadliest outbreak in modern history, including (projecting forward under worst-case scenarios) Covid-19.

The fatality rate was estimated to be 2%, with an unusually high rate in young, healthy individuals. No vaccine or medical treatment was used, mainly just isolation, limits on social gatherings, and other protocols put into place to minimize human contact. Other flu pandemics broke out throughout the 20th century, most notably in 1968. 

Other ills referred to as epidemics or pandemics also have occurred: HIV/AIDS in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s was crushing, though the spread was not through droplets like Covid-19.

So time will put Covid-19 in its rightful place in history – even if we can’t place it just yet.


Andrew Weindling is a rising junior who spends his time reading, writing, and engaging in all things music-related. His two strongest subjects are English and History, and he especially enjoys sharing his ideas with classmates through class discussions.