The Coronavirus in Light of Other Pandemics in History: Also Lesson Plans and Resources for Further Research

Coronavirus (COVID-19)-

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The topic that is on the world’s mind in mid-March 2020 in nearly every country in the world is the COVID19 pandemic. Therefore, I decided to devote a series of articles to this topic. This will be the first in a series of articles devoted to the novel coronavirus. In this post we will discuss other pandemics throughout history in order to place the novel coronavirus within a historical context. In the last section we will also offer some online resources and lesson plans that teachers and parents can use with students in light of many schools having to shift to online learning as a result of closings.

Epidemic versus a pandemic?
What is the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic? Although the two words are at times used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference. An article entitled “Epidemic” vs. “Pandemic”: What Do These Terms Mean? on offers a clear distinction between the two concepts. The website states “an epidemic disease is one affecting many persons at the same time, and spreading from person to person in a locality where the disease is not permanently prevalent. The World Health Organization (WHO) further specifies epidemic as occurring at the level of a region or community. Compared to an epidemic disease, a pandemic disease is an epidemic that has spread over a large area, that is, it’s prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world. While pandemic can be used for a disease that has spread across an entire country or other large landmass, the word is generally reserved for diseases that have spread across continents or the entire world.”

Pandemics and and Native American History   
Unfortunately, Native American history has been shaped by disease and widespread deaths. In Pre-Columbian times, certain diseases we know today did not exist in the Americas, but were introduced to the Western Hemisphere by the Europeans. Many of the diseases we associate with epidemics such as smallpox, measles, mumps and the flu were transferred to North and South America during what is known as the Columbian exchange or the Great Biological Exchange, which took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time many Native American tribes were decimated from disease and death because their immune systems had not been built up to resist the potent bacteria and viruses. After the arrival of the first generations of Europeans to the Americas, the Native population was nearly wiped out completely from diseases brought over from places like Spain and Portugal. Some experts say that approximately 20 million people (Nearly 95% of the population) died in the years following European arrival. 

One of the most insidious diseases was smallpox. Like the novel coronavirus (COVID19) in modern times, smallpox is also a viral infection. Also in the same way as COVID19, smallpox enters the body through the nose or throat. From there, it travels to the lungs and part of the circulatory system and spreads quickly. And within only a few days large blisters spread throughout the body, that if punctured become highly contagious. The transfer of smallpox requires close human contact and has an incubation period of 12 days. 

The rapid spread of diseases may have once seemed foreign to those in the Western hemisphere, but now may seem all too familiar. With the sudden emergence of COVID19 on US shores it is only fitting that we devote a series of articles to addressing this topic. The remainder of this article will offer a brief survey of some of the major pandemics that have taken place throughout history so that we can put the COVID19 pandemic in historical context.      

The History of Pandemics 
As we have stated, the word pandemic has come to indicate the rapid spread of a particular disease across multiple continents. As humans have spread across the world, so have infectious diseases. As we now realize, even in this modern era, outbreaks are nearly constant, though not every outbreak reaches the pandemic level as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has. 

One of the first recorded pandemics was the Antonine Plague in the year 165-180 A.D. The disease was thought to be either smallpox or measles. By the height of the plague, the death toll was 5 million people. The Plague of Justinian in 541-542 A.D. was much worse than Antonine Plague. It was a bacterial disease transferred through rats and fleas that killed 30-50 million people. The Black Death (Otherwise known as the bubonic plague) took place during the middle ages and was a bacterial disease that was also spread by rats and fleas. This pandemic claimed a whopping 200 million lives. The New World Smallpox Outbreak -mentioned earlier- decimated Native populations in the Americas in 1520, claiming 56 million lives at its height. 

Some of the worst pandemics have happened as recently as the twentieth century. For example, the Spanish Flu (1918-1919) was spread by a virus known as H1N1 and killed 40-50 million people. Other more recent diseases were the Hong Kong Flu that killed 1 million people (1968-1970) and the HIV/AIDS Virus (1981-present). The AIDS Virus was spread by chimpanzees and has taken the lives of 25-35 million people so far. Some pandemics from the recent past include, the Swine Flu (2009-2010) and the Ebola virus (2014-2016) that killed 11,000. The data mentioned above was pulled from an article entitled Visualizing the History of Pandemics. You can go to this site and see a chart of the history of pandemics and an up to date death toll of the coronavirus. 

As of March 27, 2020 the death toll from COVID19 was 26, 827 globally and the virus is showing no signs of slowing. As is clear from what we have just discussed, widespread and deadly diseases have always been a part of human history. Although many people in the developed world are not accustomed to the rapid outbreak of disease, the phenomenon seems to have come to our doorstep. 

With children being home schooled across the nation below are some lesson plans and resources teachers and parents can use to help students learn more about how the spread of disease has shaped human history. As a side note, this topic allows for wonderful opportunities to do interdisciplinary work. A study of epidemics and pandemics can offer a nice intersection of science, history, math and language arts.

Lesson Plans and Teacher Resources for Studying Pandemics

Teaching About Coronavirus: 3 Lesson Plans for Science, Math, and Media Literacy
Lesson plans for COVID-19 school closure / 10+ days of Spanish class work
Breaking News English Lesson on COVID-19
How To Keep Kids Excited to Learn During COVID-19 School Closures
ILearn Schools Response to COVID19
2020 COVID-19 Remote Learning
Helping you plan and continue instruction during the COVID-19 crisis
Making Sense of Coronavirus Through Media and Storytelling | Student Reporting Labs
Why some people are more vulnerable to catching coronavirus

Lesson Plans and Resources on the History of Pandemics
Pandemic & Epidemic Lesson Plan
Lesson Plan Nature of an Epidemic
Visualizing the History of Pandemics
Preparing for a Pandemic- Lesson Plan
The Flu in Context: Epidemics, Vaccines and Prevention- Lesson Plan
Epidemiology: Solve the Outbreak- Lesson Plan
Best Instructional Videos: Pandemics Through the Years
A visual history of pandemics
Deadliest pandemics in modern history
The Story Of… Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs
An Ice Core Reveals How Profoundly The Black Death Changed Medieval Society

General Education Resources/Lessons for Homeschooling
Google Earth Has Virtual Tours of 31 National Parks in the U.S.
Cincinnati Zoo Lessons Plans
Watch Zoo Animals Live and Enjoy Daily Programs
Cincinnati Zoo Facebook Interactive Resources and Videos of Animals
PBS LearningMedia Now Offers 100,000 Digital Resources in its Library for Educators
Black Culture Connection
National Geographic Lesson Plans and Resources

Discussion Questions
1. What are similarities and differences between how people responded to epidemics in the past versus how people respond in contemporary times?
2. What are some of the resources that are most helpful to you as an educator?
3. What resources and lessons mentioned do you find helpful for parents and students? How do you plan to use the resources?
4. What kinds of things are you doing in your household to prepare for COVID19 and the major interruptions it may cause or may have caused?

1 Comment

  1. The difference between a pandemic and an epidemic are so important. This article was super helpful in deciphering the difference between the two words. With everything that is still going on in the world today, this article has brought lots of helpful insights on viruses. A pandemic is something that I did not think that I would have to worry about in my lifetime. With a pandemic none of us ever saw coming, came with events that some of us never saw coming. For example, virtual teaching/homeschooling, and for this long of a time period. This article is helpful to those parents and teachers that are doing the virtual and homeschooling because it includes multiple resources and lesson plans for at home! This is helpful for future teachers as well. This is helpful because if something like this were to happen again, we would be more prepared and know what to expect rather than a big guessing game.

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