As humans organize themselves into larger, more densely populated cities, the potential for infectious disease becomes ever more present.
Massive urban areas are like a ticking time bomb for infection - with humans, animals, food, garbage and sewage stacked tightly on top of eachother, it sets the stage for the perfect breeding ground for disease.
Our ancient ancestors lived in small isolated tribes that had very little opportunity to spread germs beyond their community. But after the advent of agriculture, tribes abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and organized into stationary civilizations. Since the dawn of civilization, mankind has dealt with epidemics, plagues and pandemics.
For most of history, city life consisted of over-crowded, unsanitary conditions. Food would often be prepared next to open sewers, while rats, cockroaches and the rotting corpses polluted the drinking water.
These early cities also featured humans and animals living in close proximity to one another - conditions that are strikingly similar to those in Wuhan, China, the source of the coronavirus outbreak.
These tight living quarters gave rise to the spread of zoonotic diseases, which are contagions transferred from animals to humans, such as COVID-19. Zoonotic diseases have been around since the earliest cities, but they would not become pandemics because these cities were isolated from one another. Once civilizations expanded into vast trading empires, the possibility for wide-spread disease was unleashed.
The first major pandemic was the Plague of Justinian, which struck the Byzintine empire in the year 541 AD. The bacterium responsible has been identified as Yersinia Pestis, commonly known as bubonic plague, a pathogen carried by rats and transferred to humans through fleas. After the plague had run its course, 25-50 million people had died, which was about a quarter of the earth’s population then.
The plague returned with a vengeance eight hundred years later as the most infamous pandemic in human history.
In 1347, ships returned to the shores of Sicily filled with sailors stricken by a mysterious illness that formed dark swellings, or buboes, in the armpits and groin. This symptom led to the nickname 'Black Death'.
The Venetians banned sailors from entering their cities for 40 days. In Italy this was called, 'quaranta giorni' which means '40 days' and explains where we get the word 'quarantine' in English.
While these quarantine efforts did help to deter the outbreak, in the end, the ‘black death’ took up to 200 million lives across Eurasia.
Europeans also had to endure many endemic diseases like Measles, Chickenpox, and especially smallpox, which killed millions over several centuries. Ironically these endemics would pave the way for Europeans to colonize the Americas.
Native Americans lacked any kind of immunity to these foreign pathogens, and once exposed, over 20 million or 90 percent of the pre-Colombian population would be wiped out. In the end, it would not be steal or guns that would conquer the new world, but infectious germs.
And perhaps we are still feeling the after effect of the horrendous Spanish Flu to this day. The most recent mass pandemic struck in 1918, and infected 500 million worldwide.
Unlike most diseases, Spanish Flu impacted young adults the hardest. Half of those that died were between ages 20 and 40 and 99 percent were under age 65. By the end of 1920, Spanish Flu claimed the lives of 50 to 100 million.
Since these dark ages, we have made great advancements in sanitation, plumbing, medicine and personal hygiene. It is highly unlikely that COVID-19 will come anywhere close to Black Death or Spanish Flu, but this does not mean it should be taken lightly.
As a species we must evolve, learn and adapt if we want to survive. It’s still too early to fully comprehend the lesson of Coronavirus, but here are just a few takeaways we may want to consider:
1. Be prepared
We shouldn’t wait until the last second to get our act together. It’s better to be over prepared than underprepared.
2. Be hygiene conscious
These diseases tend to start in crowded, dirty markets that house live animals. Any place where animals are cramped into filthy unnatural conditions, there is the potential for a disease to fester and pass from animal to human. We need stricter regulation on the care and hygiene of these animals.
3. Be more self sufficient
The majority of humans today live in cities and the vast majority of city dwellers have no idea how to grow their own food. We live in an age where it’s so easy to buy what you need. Every single thing you can imagine is just one click away. But how would you get what you needed if amazon crashed?...or the grocery store shut down?...
Modern day humans have grown far too dependent on a system that is really quite fragile. One pandemic has the power to wipe out our financial system, our food system, our transportation, our electricity and every thing we depend on so dearly to live our comfortable lives.
We say this not to scare you, but to inspire you to think about how to be more self sufficient. More of us need to reconnect with the land and learn how to grow our own food. More of us need to build our own sustainable power sources.
We should teach our kids basic survival skills, like how to purify water or perform CPR. So consider taking a look at your lifestyle and access what you can do to cut back on your dependency and be more self sufficient. It can be something as small as planting a vegetable garden instead of a lawn. Or using a bidet instead of toilet paper.
In any case, Coronavirus has shown us that fear can be just as debilitating and contagious as the disease itself. Our Society is based on trust. Without trust, society begins to break down. Fear is the ultimate destroyer of trust. We must not make decisions from a place of fear.
These global pandemics are devastating, but they can also be seen as an opportunity for our species to learn and evolve. Diseases are nature’s way of teaching us valuable lessons. If we want to survive, it is critical that we listen to these lessons, study the history, and continue to expand our consciousness.