Pandemics in history: Was Nigeria prepared for Covid-19? (1)

IT is no longer news that SARS-CoV-2, renamed Covid-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) on February 11, 2020, has taken the world by storm, transcending borders and geographical landscapes, defying orthodox treatments and holding several economies, first-world and third-world alike, to ransom. Besides its dire health implications, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a major offset in the financial, economic, religious, social and political structures world-over as evinced by a near collapse of the stock market, a staggering rate of retrenchment and unemployment, closure of transnational borders, restrictions on social and religious gatherings, a drastic fall in Foreign Direct Investment flows, among others.


Pandemics in the face of human existence

Pandemics are not alien to human existence. In the realm of infectious diseases, a pandemic is the worst-case scenario. When an epidemic spreads beyond a country’s borders, the disease then officially becomes a pandemic. Owing to the trans-border, uncontained spread of Covid-19, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, stating that “in the past two weeks, the number of cases outside China has increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries has tripled”.  The earliest recorded pandemic occurred around 430 BC during the Peloponnesian war, leading to the death of two-thirds of the Athenian population. The symptoms included fever, thirst, bloody throat and tongue, red skin and lesions. The disease, suspected to have been typhoid fever, weakened the Athenians significantly and was a significant factor in their defeat by the Spartans.  Next was the Antonine Plague of 165 AD which occasioned symptoms similar to smallpox. Symptoms included fever, sore throat, diarrhea and, if the patient lived long enough, pus-filled sores. This plague continued until about 180 A.D., claiming Emperor Marcus Aurelius as one of its victims.

The Cyprian Plague of 250 AD which was symptomatized with gangrenous hands and feet, leading to several amputations to curtail its spread. City dwellers fled to the country to escape infection but instead spread the disease further. Possibly starting in Ethiopia, it passed through Northern Africa, into Rome, then onto Egypt and northward. The Justinian Plague of 541 AD which first appeared in Egypt, eventually killing 26 percent of world population, that is about 50 million people. The plague changed the course of the empire, squelching Emperor Justinian’s plans to bring the Roman Empire back together and causing massive economic struggle. It is also credited with creating an apocalyptic atmosphere that spurred the rapid spread of Christianity.

There was the Black Death of 1350 which was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347 when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People who gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbour, but it was too late. Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill about 50 million people. The plague collapsed the British feudal system when it changed economic circumstances and demographics.

The Columbian Exchange of 1492 occurred as a result of the arrival of the Spanish in the Caribbean who brought infections such as smallpox, measles and bubonic plague being passed along to the native populations by the Europeans. With no previous exposure, these diseases devastated indigenous people, with as many as 90 percent dying throughout the north and south continents. Upon arrival on the island of Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus encountered the Taino people, population 60,000. By 1548, the population stood at less than 500!!!  The 1665 Great Plague of London was another pandemic of devastating proportions. It was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England. It led to the deaths of 20 percent of London’s population. As human death tolls mounted and mass graves appeared, hundreds of thousands of cats and dogs were slaughtered as the possible cause and the disease spread through ports along the Thames.

The first Cholera Pandemic occurred in 1817. It originated originated in Russia, where one million people died. Spreading through faeces-infected water and food, the disease was passed along to British soldiers who brought it to India where millions more died. The reach of the British Empire and its navy spread cholera to Spain, Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany and America, where it killed 150,000 people.   The Third Plague Pandemic of 1855 started in China and moved to India and Hong Kong. It claimed 15 million victims. India faced the most substantial casualties and the epidemic was used as an excuse for repressive policies that sparked some revolt against the British. The pandemic was considered active until 1960 when cases dropped below a couple hundred.

In 1875, there was the Fiji Measles Pandemic. After Fiji ceded to the British Empire, a royal party visited Australia as a gift from Queen Victoria. Arriving during a measles outbreak, the royal party brought the disease back to their Island, and it was spread further by the tribal heads and police who met with them upon their return. It led to the death of one-third of Fiji’s population, with a total of 40,000 people dying.

The Russian Flu of 1889, which started in Siberia and Kazakhstan, travelled to Moscow, and made its way into Finland and then Poland, where it moved into the rest of Europe. By the following year, it had crossed the ocean into North America and Africa. By the end of 1890, the flu had claimed 360,000 lives.  In the history of pandemics, the 1918 Spanish Flu is the deadliest, having symptoms similar to Covid-19. It attacked the respiratory system and was transmitted by inhaling the respiratory droplets of an infected person who coughs, sneezes or talks. Equally, it was transmitted when an infected person touched a surface which had the virus and touched his mouth, eyes or nose. Young children, people over 65 and people with certain medical conditions faced a higher risk of infection. The first wave of the Spanish Flu was generally mild and the infected generally experienced flu-like symptoms. However, the second wave of the disease, deadlier than the first wave, led to the death of victims within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skins turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate. In fact, according to a report, more US soldiers died from the 1918 Spanish Flu than during World War 1. Next is the 1957 Asian Flu which started in Hongkong and spread through China, and then into the United States. It became widespread in England where, over six months, 14,000 people died. A second wave followed in early 1958, causing an estimated total of about 1.1 million deaths globally.

In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome started in China, followed by 26 other countries, infecting 8,096 people, with 774 deaths. SARS is characterized by respiratory problems, dry cough, fever and head and body aches and is spread through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. Quarantine efforts proved effective in curtailing its spread. The latest pandemic is now Covid-19 which was also first reported in China and has spread over the world, leading to thousands of death. The disease became known when Dr. Li Wenliang defied Chinese government orders and released safety information to other doctors. By mid-March, it had spread globally to more than 163 countries, Nigeria inclusive.

To be continued



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