History’s Hard Pandemic Lessons

Learn Or Proceed At Your Peril

By James T. Rohlfing –

As of July 2020, COVID-19 has claimed more than half a million lives worldwide.  Throughout recorded history, more people, in fact, have died from the bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause disease than from any other causes of death, including wars and natural disasters.  Despite humanity’s previous experiences with pandemics and disease, the COVID-19 crisis is perhaps the most consequential historical event in the lifetimes of people living today.  Our advanced healthcare systems and our capacity to diagnose, treat and cure illness have led us to believe we can contain widescale epidemics.  Our dependence on global supply chains has not prepared us for shortages in component parts of everything from soup to nuts – literally.  As commerce begins again and an end to the pandemic appears on the horizon, perhaps a distance one, a reflection on the history of pandemics should shed light on how to effectively balance the needs of commerce and public safety until a vaccine is available.

Epidemics started to became a scourge of civilization when people transitioned from communities of hunter gatherers to a more communal lifestyle, which included farming and livestock, as early as 9000 B.C.  This facilitated the transmission of diseases from livestock to humans and also, among people who lived in proximity to one another.  As trade routes developed among towns and cities, diseases spread along those routes and pandemics, epidemics over multiple countries or continents, became more common and widespread. The Plague of Athens, which struck that city in 430 B.C., is said to have influenced Sparta’s victory over Athens, while subsequent plagues in the first few centuries A.D. weakened the Roman Empire and contributed to its demise.  The first known pandemic of bubonic plague, the Plague of Justinian, was recorded beginning in the mid-sixth century and killed from 30 to 100 million people over the following two centuries.  Though leprosy might have been around as early as 1500 B.C., its spread was precipitated by the growth of European cities, and other factors, including increased trade, the crusades and bad hygiene in the 12th Century.  Social distancing measures, and efforts to quarantine people infected were employed throughout history to reduce the impact and spread of epidemics.

The most fatal pandemic in history, the Black Death, a severe episode of the bubonic plague, peaked in Europe in 1348 and resulted in the deaths of 75 to 200 million people in Europe and surrounding continents, which was about one half of Europe’s population at the time. The bacteria that causes the bubonic plague is believed to have originated in central Asian and spread west.  When Asian warriors were attacking a Genoese city in 1346, they catapulted plague-infected corpses into the city hoping to spread the disease to the enemy.  The plague contaminated the city and the sea-faring Genoese traders who, with an assist from rats and fleas on their ships, eventually spread the disease to the port cities of Europe.  The disease promptly travelled inland disproportionately killing those in densely populated areas, especially the poor and malnourished.

The Black Death was far more challenging than COVID-19 because at that time there was no effective medical care or even an understanding of what caused the disease.  People had a vague sense it was spread from other people, but they did not know how it spread or how to slow it from spreading further.  Bodies piled up in the streets and doctors were overwhelmed.  Fear was rampant and commerce and social life in some cities and towns ground to a halt.  Clergy were afraid to minister to their flocks, parents rid themselves of infected children, and some doctors refused to treat afflicted patients.  It was popularly believed the plague was caused by a bad conjunction of the stars and planets or unbalanced humors or liquids in the body corrupted by bad air.  Suspected cures included bloodletting, burning of strong-smelling substances to keep away the bad air, and the wearing of magic amulets.

Additional pandemics and epidemics have caused widespread disease and death in Europe and beyond, up to and including in modern times.  For centuries, the smallpox epidemics were rampant in many European communities–and it was a particularly gruesome infliction for early Americans who had no natural immunity to the disease.  According to some historians, George Washington’s decision to inoculate the colonial army in the winter of 1777 against smallpox is credited as being one of the most important decisions in bringing about an American victory against the British.  Throughout the 19th Century, several waves of cholera, which is caused by a bacteria spread by contaminated water, inflicted widespread death and destruction, but an emerging understanding of “germs” led to dramatic changes in healthcare, public institutions that addressed health and safety, and public policies to address the causes and response to disease. Communities that learned to treat sewage and took measures to clean streets, install underground sewage systems, especially egg-shaped sewers, helped to reduce transmission of cholera. In addition, people with the means to escape urban areas or, at least blighted and waste-filled areas of cities, had a greater chance of avoiding infection.

The Spanish flu of 1918 was a particularly deadly influenza pandemic which began in the spring of 1918 and came to an end in the summer of 1919, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.  It is estimated to have infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time and brought about the deaths of 50 million people. The rapid transmission of the virus has been attributed to the close contact of soldiers in ships and trenches during the First World War.  Then, as troops returned home from the war, they brought the disease with them and precipitated its rapid spread around the globe.  Philadelphia, which held a welcome home parade and rally for the troops suffered 748 deaths attributable to the disease per 100,000 people, while St. Louis which promptly began quarantine measures experienced a much lower death rate of 358 per 100,000.  At least one study has shown cities that imposed early and stricter isolating measures recovered more quickly from the economic decline than did cities that relied on shorter and less severe quarantine measures.

We have learned much from previous struggles with pandemics that applies to the global response to COVID-19.  Social distancing, quarantines, and other measures to avoid infections and treat people, have been important tools in the pandemic playbook for centuries.  Front-line workers or those without the option of working at home, or leaving the cities for their summer cottages, have always been impacted more severely by pandemics.  Alongside all the suffering that pandemics have inflicted on the world, there are glimmers of positive effects.  Perhaps if Isaac Newton had not been isolated at the family farm in 1665 escaping the bubonic plague, he would not have discovered major insights in mathematics and physics that changed the world.  Maybe the improvements in sanitation techniques, such as underground sewers, would not have become so widespread so quickly, saving millions of lives.  From reviewing pandemics through history, we learn that humanity survives, healthcare becomes more able to address outbreaks, and public health measures improve our ability to fight dangerous microbes.  We have also learned that our own COVID-19 experiences will end soon enough, and when they do, the world will have advanced its ability to deal more effectively with inevitable future pandemics.

 

 


About James T. Rohlfing

James T. Rohlfing is a partner in the national law firm of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, and a member of the firm’s Construction Practice Group and Litigation Practice Group.  Mr. Rohlfing represents subcontractors and other participants in the construction industry.  He is the editor of Illinois Construction Law Manual and is currently general counsel as well as the past president of the Illinois Mechanical & Specialty Contractor’s Association (IMSCA). He is an active member of the ABA Construction Forum, the Society of Illinois Construction Attorneys (SOICA),  the Chicago Bar Association’s Construction Law committee, and the Association of Subcontractors and Affiliates in Chicago. He has drafted and assisted in passing Illinois legislation critical to the construction industry and he has testified on numerous occasions on construction law issues before committees of the Illinois Legislature.

To Learn More, please visit www.saul.com or contact Mr. Rohlfing at james.rohlfing@saul.com

 

leave a reply