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. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty and chaos into our world recently. From the article, I found it very beneficial to see the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic as these terms often intertwine. If we know that COVID-19 is a pandemic, people can understand that this disease has spread across the entire world. It has not affected one single country, but rather people from all nations are taking cautionary measures towards the outbreak. Having Native American heritage, it was interesting to read about the widespread of disease in North America that removed many tribes. Usually when young students read about Native Americans, textbooks focus on how their land was taken over and they were run out. However, this article looks at the perspective of how disease wiped out majority of the Native population. I appreciated how this article put COVID-19 in a historical context so we can see how it relates to other pandemics. Although it can be frightening to relate the plague in AD times to the Corona virus in 2020, it opens people’s eyes to see the seriousness of the situation so they can play a role in helping it deteriorate over time. I knew the names of some of the pandemics in the twentieth century, however, I was not aware of how large the death toll was for each of them. As a future teacher, I especially appreciated the online resources and lesson plans section. With homeschooling, many guardians are struggling to provide an involved education to their children. Especially at the elementary level, many young students are curious of the current situation and these resources are a great tool to help children learn about how the disease has shaped history and the future.

  2. Although this article is relevant during this time in all our lives, I feel that it will still be relevant in years to come. Epidemics and pandemics are not something that we have never experienced before and/or never will again, as it was explained in the article. It is important to understand the past and present to be able to understand the future, especially during troubling times. COVID-19 has opened the eyes of people world-wide, it has changed daily life routines, such as school, work, eating out, and much more. My place of work has closed, I am out of a job for now, but the great company I work for has decided to continue to pay their employees for as long as they are closed. I am grateful that they have chosen to do this, but I still wonder how they are doing this? Lastly, as a future teacher, I am interested in seeing how we will be teaching our students about this time and the effects it has had on individuals and our economy.

  3. This topic is a topic that is relevant at this time and I felt as if I needed to be more informed as I feel as if I am always missing key information about the whole idea, as I have never lived during a time like this. All I knew was COVID-19 was a virus the started in China in December. I never thought this virus would be as bad as it has come to in America. With it being so serious, I always heard people on the news and on the media calling it Pandemic. Since I have never lived through a time of such a fast spreading virus, I was very confused on what the term they were using as it related to an epidemic. This article laid it out for me perfectly. I now know that a pandemic is an epidemic that is spread over a large area of land form people to people. With this being a term they keep using, I kept asking myself is this something that has ever happened in the world before or should I be worried that this is happening to another level I am already worried. I love how you stated the different pandemics that have happened before and how much it has formed history. As a child I remember learning about the Black Death but never linked it to a pandemic. This pandemic, in about 10 year, will be all over History books that my children and your children will learn about. As future teacher, I cant wait to to teacher my students about this time and how different it was, as the shortages we had, such as in toilet paper. I will be able to make a connection with my students and give a primary rap life view point on how it truly was. One of the lessons the I really enjoyed Is the Remote learning lessons. I want to talk about this situation with. My students and explain to them how they would feel about doing this and never being ablate see their friends.

  4. This article is so relevant during the present time dealing with the Coronavirus. Often times we only see the word pandemic if it is in fictional literature or even video games. It is not often times that we talk about pandemics unless we are talking it past tense. It is interesting, yet frightening, to be in the same shoes as those we talk about in our history books. What really sticks out to me from reading this and looking through history at the different pandemics and epidemics that have hit the world, Trump is getting so much backlash for calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus”. While I don’t agree with him calling it that, he gets called out for being racist for naming it after the place of its origin, we have had many other illnesses that were named in such a way, such as the Spanish Influenza and Hong Kong Flu. I thought that demonstrates how politics and the political views can start blurring and blame can start pointing towards people just because we are full of fear and uncertainty.

  5. This article was a very relevant topic and I chose to read it to get a better understanding of what is happening right in front of me. I enjoyed reading about the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic, as personally I did not know the difference. This article also offers many great and reliable resources for those who are struggling right now, especially parents who are having to teach their students at home because schools are closed. It is so crazy to think that in a few years, we will be telling our children that we lived through a pandemic. I am interested to see how I will be able to use this experience in my future teaching.

  6. This article was a very helpful and relevant source at this time. With all of the craziness surrounding COVID19, it’s important to keep ourselves and children educated. A great way to do that is to look at the history of pandemics and their affects on the world. By taking a look at the history we can decide what worked and didn’t work during a time like this in the past. Another thing that causes panic at this time is the shift of responsibility that comes from schools being closed. Most parents are having to teach their children at home with little to no resources. This article offers a couple of great resources that can help parents get through this challenging time.

  7. I decided to read this article because of how relevant it is to what is happening right in front of our eyes. We are becoming history as we speak. I just keep telling myself that one day we are going to tell our grandkids about the COVID19 and the effects and changes we had to make in your daily lives to live. Some of the decisions our government is making does seem a little extra sometimes because we know that we have had other viruses similar to this one that has also caused death. But I believe, as a nation, we are taking good precautions to help stop the virus. I loved reading about the history of the Native Americans and the diseases the Europeans brought over with them. It’s very similar to our virus today. People brought the COVID19 over from China and it’s new to Americans and really the rest of the world that it’s causing our bodies to shut down. Today, we have much better technology that will hopefully help us kick COVID19 and stop it from spreading more.

  8. The article stood out to me as the topic of Coronavirus is on the front of everyone’s micds and conversations. As both a student and an educator I see how big of an impact this is having on the education system. One thing from this article that is standing out to me from this article is what a pandemic is. The article states that a pandemic is “an epidemic that has spread over a large area, that is, it’s prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world. “ The article links to another great article that helps further explain the difference between the two terms. The other thing that stood out to me from this article is how the studying of pandemics can be a cross disciplinary topic covering math, science, history and language arts.

  9. This article is very relevant at this time. I really appreciate that you added the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic. The way they were defined can be broken down to teach younger students which is very helpful. I think it is also important to compare this pandemic to other pandemics and epidemics so that students have a better understanding since they are currently living through this pandemic. I also really like the resources you added for education for students at home. Some of these activities are not only educational but they are also fun.

  10. I think it is critically important that we educate children on pandemics. They need to understand the gravity of the situation based on historical context, such as smallpox or the Black Death, so that they can better grasp why so many unprecedented steps have been taken in the past week to keep everyone safe. We can also incorporate interdisciplinary learning by explaining the context of some of the countermeasures (such as social distancing) used to prevent the spread of viruses.

    I think the most challenging part at the moment is finding a way to deliver this kind of information to students in a compelling way, in light of all of the school closures that have forced districts to online/alternative instruction.

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