Five times in history that epidemic outbreak nearly ended humanity

As the world contends with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the tragedies it has caused globally, we can't help but think through time and wonder if the world has been in this kind of dilemma before. While the pandemic has led to more than 171,000 deaths and a global lockdown, there have been some other outbreaks that have had similar devastating outcomes in the past.

Although advancement in science and medicine has made the possibility of finding a cure for COVID-19 much more feasible, here are a few epidemic outbreaks that came close to wiping out human existence.


One of the six compulsory vaccines that people are mandated to receive at infancy presently is for the Variola virus or smallpox. In December 1796, WHO pushed for the eradication of smallpox after finding the cure and launching vaccination campaigns around the world. But before the spread of the disease was contained, the estimate shows that smallpox was responsible for the death of 300 to 500 million people. Smallpox was very contagious especially when one came in contact with the liquid from the boils that usually covered the patient's body. It wiped out 90% of Native Americans after it was introduced into the new world by Europeans.

Black Death (Bubonic Plague)

To those who lived between 1331 and 1353, modern diseases are nothing but mere scratches compared to the Bubonic Plague. The bacteria originated from rats which passed it to fleas, and from fleas to humans. From Asia, it spread across Europe and Africa through fleas and rats that lived in merchant ships that traveled to ports around the world. This disease killed half of Europe's population and claimed an estimated total of 100 to 200 million victims worldwide before it receded. The name Black Death is symbolic – showing the dark mood that the disease brought and not the colour of dead victims.

Spanish Flu

1918 – 1919 witnessed a rapid decline in the global population as a result of a disease caused by the H1N1 virus. The disease which was extremely deadly and contagious was first confirmed in America but spread quickly to become a worldwide pandemic present in all continents. Though it did not stay long before receding, it successfully caused more than 50 million deaths in six months alone.

Plague of Justinian

From 541 to 750, Egypt, China, Europe especially Constantinople, and all port cities around the world were under the mercy of a devastating plague. According to historical records, the plague killed up to a disputed 10,000 people daily at its peak. Named after Roman Emperor Justinian I, the disease went on to kill an exaggerated 25 to 100 million people after recurring for two centuries. 


From 1981 till present, HIV/AIDS is responsible for the death of about 35 million people and counting. The virus which is contracted through blood and body fluids was reportedly identified first in Africa before it spread across the world. Before it was established that the new immunodeficiency syndrome was not contracted by being in close contact with the patient, many people feared that the disease would wipe out the entire world. The panic eased off after it was confirmed that one can only be infected by HIV/AIDS through sexual intercourse, sharing blades, blood transfusion, or exchanging body fluids with an infected person. 

The disease is still incurable but it is possible to live close to normal life by using antiretroviral therapy. There are about 38 million people living with HIV/AIDS presently.

This list would not be complete if it does not include honourable mentions. There are some diseases that shook the world but were managed successfully to reduce death toll or wide outbreak. This includes Measles, Tuberculosis, Cholera, and Ebola. All these diseases caused more than 10 million deaths apart from Ebola with about 11,300 deaths. Others are grouped under Flu and plagues that occurred at different times and places.

The fear, pain, and hardship that come with these outbreaks can be imagined using present cases as examples. With the current spread of COVID-19 across the world, there are fears that this might be one of the darkest moments in human history. Having claimed more than 171,000 lives with over 2.4 million cases globally, the pandemic still hasn't slowed down and there is no end in sight. Many countries are on lockdown while practicing social distancing to flatten the curve. Many have been thrown into economic hardship as a result.

Though the increase in medical science breakthrough and technology is helping in the fight and control of modern epidemics, the threat to life and population decimation remains prevalent.

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