Covid-19, exactly how bad is it?

YACA — Yet Another Corona Article. 90% of international news reports are on the subject, and I had promised myself not to add even more. But it is too important to abstain.

A tiny sliver of genetic information, so small you cannot even see it with a regular optical microscope, has stopped the world in its tracks. It has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced us to abandon family and social contacts, to wear masks and undertake routine errands with utmost caution. It has caused hundreds of millions to lose their jobs, and struggle for daily survival. The total cost for the world runs in the dozens of trillion dollars.

But first: how bad, exactly, is this pandemic. How bad is it compared to previous pandemics that killed large numbers of people, ravaged human society, caused empires and dynasties to fall. The Washington Post provided us with a very instructive overview. I pass this on, not to downplay the current crisis, which can easily grow into the historically greatest disaster. And it can keep coming back, periodically, to rage across the globe again and again. But it is always important to keep things in context.

Okay, this is our first graphic. The two barely visible little red dots on the top represent two previous respiratory epidemics: SARS (technically SARS CoV-1) that struck in 2002–2003 and left just under 1,000 people dead, and MERS, which in 2015 killed a similar number. The third dot from the top is the dreaded Ebola. After that comes the current SARS CoV-2 disease (Covid-19). Right now, at the beginning of April 2020, it has infected over a million and a half people, killing over 100,000 of them worldwide.

There have been, as you can see in this second diagram, at least three more deadly respiratory virus infections that killed a million people each. And then there is the infamous “Spanish Flu”, which got its name not from the place of origin, but because Spain was the first country to honestly report the toll it took. The flu came in two waves, and infected around 500 million people worldwide — even President Woodrow Wilson caught it.

What about the plague, smallpox, HIV?

Plague: I have written about this subject — How I survived bubonic plague (sort of)and do not want to repeat myself. I urge you to go to the Washington Post story and read the horrifying details. Plague was a bacterial disease transported by fleas living on the backs of rodents. The fall of the Roman Empire was in no small part brought about by the Antonine Plague, which swept Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Historian Procopius called it “a pestilence by which the whole human race is near to being annihilated.”

This wonderfully informative Daryl Cagle cartoon (updated Sept 20, 2020) puts historical pandemics into perspective. It includes some we did not mention, e.g. cholera, yellow fever.

Here are the really big ones. The immunodeficiency infection HIV/AIDS, a virus disease, interferes with the immune system, causing victims to develop other opportunistic infections and tumours. In the forty years since it was first discovered it is estimated that 50 million people have succumbed to this viral disease — most in sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallpox, another deadly virus disease, caused enough suffering and misery in Europe and Asia. But when Europeans travelled to the New World, taking smallpox with them, things really exploded. The natives did not have a chance to survive the sudden encounter with a virus against which they had absolutely no immunity. It is estimated that around 90% perished, killed not by the invading soldiers but by the illnesses they brought with them.

The most devastating disease to ever hit mankind came in the 14th century. The “Black Death”, or bubonic plague, was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, living in the fur of rodents (mainly rats). It is estimated that Black Death killed up to 200 million people worldwide, including between 30% and 60% of Europe’s entire population. The tiny red dot on the left of the previous diagram compares Black Death fatality in the 14th century to that of SARS CoV-2, until April 2020.

Until recently the only cure for plague was: praying to the creator of the universe. It had little effect.

So will the comparatively minor Covid-19 pandemic soon disappear from the news and be treated like the common flu (which kills tens of thousands of people per year)? It may look that way to some, but be forewarned: the potential for truly monumental devastation is greater. Until we have proper treatment and effective prevention (a vaccine), until we understand the mechanisms of its viral mutations, Covid-19 will be a serious threat to survival and well-being of humanity as a whole. Think about it: Yersinia pestis needed weeks and months to move from community to community, from one country to another. Thanks to air travel SARS CoV-2 needs just a few hours, and has already spread to almost every nation on the planet, causing great suffering, and leaving many trillions of dollars of economic damage in its wake.

So what do we do about the latest pandemic? Apart from the desperately needed medical prevention and treatment of the disease, some immediate, very specific measures need to be taken. They are not cheap—the price tag may be over one hundredth of one percent of what we are currently spending to save the global economy.

But all this is the subject of part two of this article.

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Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.