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. It is very interesting to look at Covid-19 and how it stands among other pandemics of history. This article is so enlightening for an educational aspect, but even for me as a nurse. The pandemic we are currently facing is one that has impacted everyone, but has been especially hard on essential workers. This article is dated in comparison to what we are facing now, but makes it so clear that we need to be educating our students on pandemics and how they are mitigated. I feel that many of the pandemics of the past were as severe as they were due to the lack of education as well as the lack of technology. This pandemic should not be as bad as it is, but due to the unpreparedness of the leadership of the United States, the virus is still ruling and will continue to rule our lives for some while. The ultimate questions are, “When will we find a vaccine for the virus?” and “Will we be prepared for future pandemics similar to or worse than this?”

  2. This article brought a lot of insight to me about the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. Also, I feel very educated now about the history of these popular pandemics, including the most recent coronavirus. It is something that I personally never thought I would have to worry about in my lifetime. You constantly learn in history class about pandemics that have occurred due to lack of resources and technology (like smallpox), but you probably never thought they could occur in the well-developed 20th century. In speaking about Dr. Childs points on pandemics, I read an article that said one happens every 100 years like the Spanish flu outbreak in 1920 and the cholera one in 1820, as touched on in the article above. After reading, I really feel I know more about the damage pandemics have caused all over the world.

  3. I am reading this a few months later and am saddened to note how much worse it has gotten. At the time as you stated 26,000+ had died globally, and it has exceeded that by a lot. Before reading this I did not realize the difference between pandemic and epidemic so this was very informative to me. I remember when the Swine Flu was happening and Ebola, and I thought those were two horrible instances… but I have never (along with many others) experienced this. The diseases that the Native Americans faced is really upsetting. People have been realizing the tragedies that the Native Americans went through and this is another one that needs to be more well known.

  4. It is extremely important to educate on pandemics. I believe that they get overlooked on how they have shaped human history. Growing up the only pandemic I remember being familiarized with is the Black Plague and its effects on European history. That is a sad lack of knowledge with all of the pandemics that have happened in the last 100 years or so alone like the Spanish Flu, which no country talked about except for Spain because of the fear of looking weak during World War I. Hopefully with the current crisis, we can teach this generation the importance of understanding pandemics and how they affect the world.

  5. Upon seeing this article, I immediately wanted to read it in light of the continuing coronavirus and getting myself more educated on this topic. This is a time of uncertainty because we don’t know what is going to happen next just like these other pandemics, everyone has to take it day by day so that we know what to do next. Right now, everything is closed but more things are beginning to open all over the nation, and hopefully with everything beginning to open the amount of cases won’t go up drastically. When you learn about all these different pandemics in school, you don’t think about it ever happening to our generation because you believe it is a thing of the past. So, I enjoyed you shedding a light on the other pandemics from the past so that we can compare and know the history of these viruses. I did a project on the bubonic plague in middle school, and I never thought that we would experience a virus that could cause a pandemic. From when you posted this article the amount coronavirus deaths have risen to about 90,000 deaths, and they are still rising. I really enjoyed this article and learning about the pandemic going on as well as all of the previous pandemics that we have encountered over the years.

  6. I try to watch the news every morning and evening to keep up with politics and what’s going on in the world, and ever since late January when U.S. reporters began covering what was going on in China and then Italy, I was fascinated. I remember the Swine Flu and the Ebola virus, but neither of those even come close to the effect Covid-19 is having on our country. Though devastating, it was still so insightful to learn about the symptoms and history of some of the former insidious diseases around the globe. For example, I didn’t realize that the Black Death was spread by rats and fleas, and that it claimed the lives of 200 million people. Reading about the Spanish Flu hit close to home because my grandma has told us over the years about when her dad had it when he was a little boy. A doctor came to their house to check on him and he said, “That little boy in the corner won’t survive.” Thankfully, he did, and my grandma swears that what he had to endure gave his body the ability and resilience to fight off any other kinds of sickness until he passed away later in life. The article entitled, “Visualizing the History of Pandemics” is extremely informational and a great image of the scale of pandemics in comparison to one another. Finally, I shared the link to the Google Earth Virtual Tours of the 31 National Parks in the U.S. with my mom because she is a 5th grade Social Studies teacher and I know her students would absolutely love exploring this site!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article because I think it gives a larger view into how this virus is impacting the world right now, but it also allows us to take a closer look into history to see how viruses and infections have shaped our world into what it is now. I think this article and the resources provided would be a great way for students to see how different viruses and diseases have played a role in our country, and throughout the world. I also think this would be a great way to involve other disciplines as well as social studies, for example you could teach a science unit on how these epidemics and pandemics begin and what causes them to spread. I like this article and the resources it provides because it allows students to learn more about what is going on and it also gives them hope because with the research provided they are able to see that we have battled things like this before and we are still standing. This virus has seriously impacted our everyday lives and I think this article and everything it entails could bring many people peace because it answers a lot of questions and it simplifies things so people can better understand what we are dealing with. This article provides so many resources to gain the knowledge needed to understand this virus and defeat it so I think it is an amazing resource for students to see and learn from.

  8. Having a distinction between epidemic and pandemic was great to know because I confused the two in the past and was not sure because people were saying both during this virus outbreak. At the beginning of the COVID 19 outbreak a lot of people were just pushing it to the side thinking it was not as serious, but when you compare it to something like smallpox it makes it seem way more realistic and deadlier than it was at the first outbreak. I am sure this was something the Natives also had to face with not knowing much about a disease and then get a lot of their people to die from a disease. Seeing the increase of deaths is scary due to the fact that we don’t have any way of really preventing this spreading of what is going on, and it is putting a lot of people’s lives at risk.

  9. This article is very relevant and informational. We are living history as it’s happening. This pandemic will be referred to for many years to come when discussing economic, geographic, anthropologic, and societal history. I think it is important to know the difference between pandemic and epidemic and this article does that well. This article describes our world’s history with epidemics and pandemics. It also does a good job of transitioning to Native American history with disease and epidemic. It is very important to know that 95% of the Native American population was wiped out because of European disease that was brought over. We have missed out on the opportunity to learn, adopt, and grow from Native American culture because so much of them were wiped out. What was left were forced into assimilation. This pandemic is supposedly just getting started and won’t even hit its peak for another month. I’m thankful for the technology, knowledge, and resources that we have now during these hard times. Hopefully this history will help future generations learn from this situation.

  10. Prior to what is currently going on in our world right now, I have to admit that I did not know the difference between the words epidemic and pandemic. With that being said, this article does a nice job summing up what these two words really mean. At first even though the coronavirus did immediately impact my life, I was not all too concerned until recently when I found out my job was going to stay closed until further notice and will not be continuing to pay their employees. It is a very weird feeling to have to file for unemployment at the age of 23 years old when I have worked since I was 18 years old. We have recently learned more in depth about the Colombian Exchange and I remember writing in a post that I was glad I did not have to live through that time period and now it seems like I might have spoken too soon. It is very surreal to think about how similar that event might end up being to the coronavirus pandemic. The only pandemics that I really remember anything about are the Swine Flu and the Ebola virus. I am praying that what precautions we are now taking will help slow the spread of the coronavirus and allows us all to get back to a normal routines.

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