A woman with a mask on walks across View Street in Victoria. The streets of downtown Victoria are quieter than usual in the wake of physical isolation mandates from the provincial and federal governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)

A woman with a mask on walks across View Street in Victoria. The streets of downtown Victoria are quieter than usual in the wake of physical isolation mandates from the provincial and federal governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)

Is COVID-19 a sign of things to come?

What history has taught us about deadly pathogens

Advances in science and technology have exposed the population to deadly pathogens never seen before, but they‘ve also given humanity more tools to protect itself from widespread outbreaks and death.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic transforms the contemporary world, similar outbreaks throughout history have shaped human society.

“It remains to be seen how it will unfold, but it will unfold in ways never seen before,” said Mitchell Hammond, a historian and professor at the University of Victoria. “Pandemics tend to expose weaknesses and challenges in society.”

Historically, a single disease, such as the plague, cholera or influenza, does not necessarily create a common, shared experience, he explained. Disease outbreaks can reveal inequities between ethnic groups, social classes, dominant cultures or people who are marginalized. And a number of factors impact mortality rates, including poverty, access to health care, and lifestyle. As an example, during the Spanish flu, indigenous groups around the world were disproportionately affected with mortality rates six to seven times higher than European communities.

“Yes, we’re all in this together, but we also have to look at how different communities are affected,” he said.

University of Victoria professor Mitchell Hammond. (Photo courtesy of the University of Victoria)

The Modern World

Hammond explained a number of factors could be shaping how the modern world is experiencing pandemics and epidemics. Advances in science and technology have seen more pathogens discovered, but they’ve also shed light on some that existed but weren’t well documented or spread. The modern world is also very different with widespread air travel, bigger cities, mass agricultural production and denser exchange networks – all of which influence how pathogens can spread. With advances in communication, the general public is also being informed of outbreaks they wouldn’t typically hear about.

Matthew Little, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy, noted all of those advancements come with the opportunity for spillover events, exposing expanding populations to sources they wouldn’t normally have contact with. For example, the deforestation of the rainforest to make room for farming has put people in contact with pathogens not previously seen by the general population.

Historically, Little said 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases (that can be sourced and tracked by the scientific community) have come from animals.

“On the other hand, we have much better surveillance to prevent these episodes from becoming a global pandemic like what we’re seeing now,” Little said, adding technology is advancing at a fantastic rate. “All of these things decrease the likelihood of pandemics … We’re always trying to stay one step ahead.”

And while the scientific community continues to encounter new pathogens, they’re also seeing re-emerging infectious diseases.

ALSO READ: Pandemic highlights existing barriers for those with communication disabilities

Previous viruses

Coronavirus is a classification – or family – of viruses that can make both humans and animals sick. In humans, several strains are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

By March 27, more Canadians had died from COVID-19 than severe acute respiratory syndrome (commonly known as SARS). That coronavirus, which had never been seen before in either animals or humans, was formally named SARS-CoV. WHO recorded 43 deaths and 251 cases in Canada. And during that outbreak, between November 2002 and Dec. 31, 2003, WHO received reports of 8,096 probable cases and 774 deaths worldwide. It did not declare a pandemic but took many other steps including activating emergency operation centres and limiting travel.

Healthcare workers accounted for 21 per cent of all cases and the world fatality rate for probable cases was 9.6 per cent, according to Infection Prevention and Control Canada (IPAC). There are no current cases of SARS in the world.

Hammond noted the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1919 is also in some ways a good comparison to COVID-19, as it was what many experts refer to as the first global pandemic. Both influenza and coronaviruses are respiratory diseases, he explained, which shapes how governments and individuals respond to them. Even a century ago, people used various forms of physical distancing and self-isolation. That outbreak was also the first big episode in public health history where people around the globe starting wearing masks, Hammond added. Before 1910, when a plague tore through China, people hadn’t started utilizing masks outside of surgeries.

“We think about disease very differently than people did 100 years ago,” Hammond said. “Ordinary people didn’t have the almost unconscious recognition of microbes as we do today.”

Deadly illnesses

Influenza, combined with pneumonia, is one of the top 10 leading causes of deaths in Canada, killing 8,511 people in 2018, 7,396 in 2017, and 6,235 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

While both influenza and COVID-19 are infectious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms, they are caused by different viruses. There are three main types of influenza viruses, influenza A, B and C. Influenza A and B are associated with seasonal flu and outbreaks, while influenza C is rare and does not usually cause epidemics or outbreaks, according to IPAC.

The 2019-2020 flu season began on Aug. 25, 2019, and as of March 28, there had been 42,355 confirmed cases of influenza in Canada, according to IPAC. Of that, 24,269 cases were influenza A and 18,086 cases were influenza B. That’s an increase from 39,192 total cases during the 2018-2019 season and is similar to the 2017-2018 season, which saw 55,059 cases.

Historically, counts ranged from a few thousand up to 17,000 between 1999 and 2012, with the exception of 2008-2009 which saw 23,376 cases and 2009-2010 which saw 39,018 cases due to a H1N1 virus commonly referred to as swine flu. During the 2012-2013 season, counts jumped to 31,737 and continued to range between approximately 28,000 and 43,000 until 2017.

Back in 1918-1919, the Spanish flu, which was caused by an H1N1 virus, was estimated to have infected approximately 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population, according to the CDC, with up to 50 million deaths worldwide.

As of May 8, there were 65,399 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with 2,288 in B.C. A total of 4,471 Canadians had died with 126 deaths in B.C. Quebec had the highest number of deaths at 2,631, followed by Ontario with 1,540. Globally, Johns Hopkins University and Medicine’s coronavirus resource centre was reporting 3,910,738 confirmed cases and 272,578 deaths as of May 8.

COVID-19 in Canada
Infogram

ALSO READ: What you need to know about COVID-19 treatment, protests and more

Outcome

“Collectively, we’re having these events not because some of us are primitive, but because we’re all connected,” Hammond explained, adding back in 1918 mass travel was done by steamship and people couldn’t move around the globe with the ease they do today.

With that has also come a shift in how the public understands the links between personal behaviour and society as a whole. “‘Flattening the curve’ is something we hear almost every day … That seeps into how ordinary people understand their lives.”

Matthew Little, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Little)

But unlike past outbreaks, Hammond said the world likely won’t see a tidy conclusion to the COVID-19 pandemic. Historical narratives of epidemics and pandemics often rise and fall – with early warnings, rising case counts, alarm, and death rates peaking, followed by decreasing cases and sober reckoning. “We tend to think of them as episodes,” he explained, adding even the word epidemic leads people to that belief.

While he wouldn’t speculate on how a vaccine could influence the outcome, he did note with how widespread COVID-19 has become, how connected the world is, and with so many variables in play, it will be interesting to see how science will shape future decisions. With advances in technology increasing testing capacities, and case tracking and public health surveillance being shaped by what the general population will stand for, the “new normal” could continue to see limitations put on survivors and those who haven’t been exposed yet.

Little added while there has been a push from governments around the world to come up with a vaccine, it needs to be something that has gone through the rigorous protocols currently in place for testing to ensure it is safe.

“The challenging thing about this is it in some ways feels like it’s moving in slow motion for those of us working from home … but research takes time,” Little said. “What we’re seeing now is not the new norm.”

ALSO READ: Canadian Paediatric Society eyes mysterious syndrome for suspected COVID links

katie.e@blackpress.ca


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Marc Porpaczy said he’s glad he delayed his daily walk with his dog, Juno, after a car crashed just outside his driveway just before 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
VIDEO: Dramatic crash highlights need for sidewalks, say Colwood residents

‘The residents have gone from frustrated to angry’

(Black Press Media file photo)
Court-registered sex offender arrested for breach of parole in Langford

Cameron Ratelle returned to correctional facility after female youth approached at bus stop

(Black Press Media file photo)
Youth in police custody after kitchen knife call

A knife was recovered during the arrest, no injuries reported

(Black Press Media file photo)
VicPD arrest man at gunpoint after firearm call

Man faces charges for breaching condition not to possess replica firearms

Sooke’s Amy McLaughlin holds Theodore, a bunny who will be going to a new owner in Nanaimo within the coming days if all goes will at an upcoming bunny play-date. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
Sooke woman looking to hop into bigger space for bunny business

Amy McLaughlin has rescued over 400 bunnies across the Island, mainland

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Residents of the Cowichan Valley decorated more than 55 vehicles with anti-racist slogans for a car rally in support of Cowichan Tribes on Saturday, January 24. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Dozens join anti-racism car rally and virtual panel in Cowichan Valley

Provincial ministry and BC Green caucus issue joint statement detailing concerns

Jesse Savidant, 31, is wanted by the RCMP after failing to appear in provincial court in Nanaimo in December. Police warn Savidant should be considered violent. (Photo Submitted)
Warrant out for man accused of stolen property offences across Vancouver Island

Jesse Savidant did not appear for court date in Nanaimo last month, say RCMP

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is urging visitors to stay on designated trails after a hiker became injured in an unsanctioned area last week. (Westerly file photo)
Injured hiker rescued in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. Two more cases of the COVID-19 strain first identified in South Africa have been diagnosed in British Columbia, bringing the total to three as of Jan. 16.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. now has three cases of South African COVID-19 variant, six of U.K. strain

Both variants are thought to spread faster than earlier strains

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Great Canadian Gaming CEO resigns after being accused of sneaking into Yukon for vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Police discovered a makeshift nightclub in a Vancouver apartment on Jan. 23, 2021, and say it wasn’t the first time this month officers have been called to the unit over social gathering concerns. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Doorman of makeshift ‘booze-can’ in Vancouver apartment fined; police look to court order

This marks the fourth complaint about social gatherings inside the apartment in January

Local musician and artist Daisy Melville created a watercolour portrait of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from the recent American inauguration, and with help from her mom, is now selling t-shirts and more with funds going to the Comox Valley Food Bank. Image submitted
Island artist turns Sanders inauguration meme into art for good

All proceeds from the sale of shirts, sweaters and more will go to the Comox Valley Food Bank

Most Read