Are you scared? You ought to be. This thing is a killer. But it’s more of a killer of economies, at least in the temporary sense, than it is of people.
There have been pandemics that killed both lives and economies on a massive scale. Here are the worst:
- Smallpox in the New World— Along with the Christian faith, sanitation, and technology, Europeans brought something else over to the New World as they conquered it in the 15th and 16th centuries: smallpox. The locals had no immunity and most were destroyed by it. The population of Mexico went from 11 million to 1 million and 20 million died overall. Per capita, it may have been the worst of the bunch, as it killed 90%-95% of the Indians in the Americas.
- The Plague of Justinian— A lot of pandemics came from a single source, a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Otherwise known as the plague. It hit Constantinople (Modern day Istanbul in Turkey), the capitol of the Byzantine Empire, in 541 during the reign of Emperor Justinian. It came over from Egypt via rats that had infested grain shipments. It went from there to everywhere, killing 30-50 million across the globe. That is estimated to have been half the world population at the time. It was said then, “There is no one left to die.”
- HIV/AIDS— Though still with us, effective treatments have rendered it much less lethal than it was between 1981-2005. It is thought to have killed 36 million people, most in Africa.
- The Spanish Flu— It hit just at the end of WWI, 1918-20. It infected a full third of the world’s population. Mortality rate was 10%-20%. It killed 20-50 million people. Though curiously, it targeted healthy young adults. As opposed to other outbreaks, kids and those with weak immune systems fared far better than expected.
- The Black Death— The plague didn’t die, only went underground for several hundred years. When it returned it did so with a vengeance. Hitting Europe in 1347, the plague, here known as the Black Death, killed an estimated 75-200 million people in four years. Fleas and rats brought it over in shipping from Asia. It changed the face of Europe and of world history forever, as labor shortages for the first time gave workers an upper hand over employers.
It killed feudalism and ushered in the beginnings of the free market. But those were ancillary. Like other contagions, it killed in wide swaths. Whole towns, villages, and areas were wiped out in days. One can still see plague markers standing in the Europe of today…We may have it bad with this virus. But it is nothing, nothing, compared to the Black Death.