The Ripple Effects of Pandemics on Modern Society

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU’s Global Security Series offers background on current national and homeland security topics. In the first installment of this new series, Dr. Morag exposed the less commonly known terrorist threat – pandemics. In this second installment, he explores three significant pandemics and their impact on society.

CTU Security Studies Degree - Ripple EffectHuman history records a number of significant pandemics, from influenza to tuberculosis. From this, most people associate pandemics with death, but few understand the severe impact pandemics have on society as a whole. The following three cases explore the potentially devastating nature of pandemics, both in terms of the loss of life and economic impact.

The Black Death
In the Spring of 1348, the Bubonic Plague struck Asia and Europe and continued to return, in varying degrees of virulence, until the eighteenth century. The plague caused painful swelling of the lymph nodes, known as “buboes,” which caused the skin to be covered with dark blotches. From this, the name, “Black Death,” was popularized.

Rodents carried the disease and another version of it, known as the Pneumonic Plague, was transmitted by air. Set in a period devoid of modern medical care and sterile hygiene standards, four out of five infected persons died within a week of contracting the Bubonic Plague, or in as few as one or two days if infected by the Pneumonic Plague. Collectively, some 75 million people are thought to have died from the pandemic with at least 20 million deaths in Europe, which accounted for potentially two-thirds of Europe’s population. 

The impact of a highly contagious pandemic of such virulence led to what is commonly referred to today as “social distancing,” but in a very extreme way. People fled cities, abandoning family and friends, which caused old class and religious structures to break down. For a time, the process of urbanization was reversed and Europe reverted to a more agrarian society. The economic impact was startling. With fewer people left to produce goods, basic commodities became extremely expensive. Additionally, wages for peasants increased creating slightly more social mobility for those who were lucky enough to survive.

Smallpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the Variola virus, which in the twentieth century, is thought to have killed over 300-500 million people globally. Its more virulent strain has a mortality rate of 30-35%. Originally transmitted by Europeans to the Americas during the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of Latin America, smallpox is thought to have been the main reason for the devastating drop in population among the native population because they had no natural immunity to the disease. Some estimates suggest as many as 95% of the native population perished. Further, the collapse of advanced Native American civilizations, such as the Aztecs and the Incas, has been attributed to ravages of smallpox. 
In 1979, as a result of the successful worldwide vaccination campaigns, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared smallpox to have been completely eradicated. The virus is thought to only exist in a handful of laboratories around the world.

Ironically, the success of the WHO’s eradication campaign has left today’s human population at risk. People are no longer vaccinated against the virus, and consequently, human populations are highly vulnerable to it.

Spanish Flu
Between 1918 and 1919, the Spanish Flu killed approximately 50 million people globally. Caused by the influenza virus, some people were able to stave off the disease and only experienced severe flu symptoms. Yet, many fought a losing battle with the disease experiencing an excruciating death as their lungs filled with fluid and they quickly asphyxiated. The disease was so rapid that people sometimes died only hours after being infected. 

This strain of Influenza received its name because Spain, a non-combatant in World War I, provided most of the information about the outbreak. Other combatant countries, including the United States, suppressed the news, choosing to exercise military censorship. It is difficult to know the number of people who became infected because of censorship, but the worldwide impact is clear.

The Spanish flu claimed the lives of 20-50 million people worldwide, infecting people in all age groups, from very young children to elderly people. But most striking and of greatest social impact, was the very large percentage of working-age people, aged 15-34, who were killed by the disease.

Lessons for Today
As the above sampling of cases suggest, pandemics are a considerable threat to lives and livelihoods.  Some public health officials estimate that in a major pandemic, particularly one that is highly contagious, some 60% of the workforce will be homebound resulting in basic goods disappearing from store shelves, the shutting down of basic services such as municipal services, health, transportation, law enforcement and schools. All could lead to runaway inflation due to price rises. 

Increasing global transportation links make managing pandemics a challenge. Pandemics are poised to spread more quickly than they did in the past, which complicates the process of identifying the virus or bacteria in question and developing vaccinations and drug treatments. Ultimately, pandemics will spread rapidly and kill many more people before they can be stopped.

Image credit: Flickr/TimOve