Plagues Throughout History

There is a lot of talk at present about Ebola and its potential effect on the world over the next year or two. The disease is growing at exponential rates in Africa and, after doubling every month, is on track to top 60,000 by the end of the year. The first case has now been reported in Texas, with perhaps a hundred people exposed. I have also heard along the grapevine that the US government has ordered 160,000 hazmat suits in case they need them.

In Africa we can now see a worst case scenario unfolding in Liberia with annual inflation rates doubling as food runs low. Fuel sales are down 35% as people have stopped travelling. Productivity is down 50-75% as people are not coming to work, and “micro-trade” financing is “completely depleted. The IMF warns “In addition to exacting a heavy human toll, the Ebola outbreak is having a severe economic and social impact, and could jeopardize the gains from a decade of peace.”

While Ebola is not expected to create such a stunning collapse in western countries, we must remember that containment is only possible if the health system can corral the disease at an early stage. If it overwhelms the health authorities or our budgets, we are on our own.

Ebola is only one of 335 zoonotic (transferred from animals to humans) diseases that have been documented since 1940. Most plagues in history have been zoonotic in origin. They are the big killers of humans.

How does this outbreak compare with history? It could be right up there by the time it has run its course in a few years:

The first recorded outbreak of the plague in Rome occurred in 167 AD and killed 25% of the population of the Europe, West Asia and North Africa.

A second outbreak in 252 AD killed a similar percentage.

In 541-2 the bubonic plague wiped out approximately 40% of the European population.

In 1330, what came to be known as the “Black Death” broke out in Myanmar and spread to China and Europe. In China it killed about 70% of the population and in Europe the death rate was between 25 and 50%. The total death toll globally is thought to be 75 million. This was the first global pandemic due to the unifying effect on global via of the Mongolian empire.

The new world suffered hideously with the arrival of western diseases like smallpox. It is thought that 95% of the 20 million Aztec’s in Mexico lost their lives when the Spanish arrived with their diseases. It took over 400 years for the population to recover. The death rate in South America was similar.

Smallpox is believed to have killed around 30% of the native American population after Europeans arrived in the 1600’s.

In 1855 the “Third Plague” pandemic killed over 10 million in China and India.

In 1889 a flu pandemic killed over a million worldwide. A second outbreak in 1919 killed around 75 million.

HIV has so far killed over 30 million people and counting.

So, although not common, pandemics are regular throughout history. With over 50% of the global population now living in cities and close to 3 billion people flying annually, we have all the kindling in place for another outbreak. The recent scare with SARS and Bird flu were contained just in time. Ebola is now out of control, it kills over 60% of its victims and there is no known cure.

How should we as Christians respond? Firstly it must be mentioned that many of the African victims will be fellow believers. Second, it is unwise to loud-mouth that this outbreak is the “judgement of God”. Such statements demonstrate ignorance about the heart of God for humanity (Luke 13:4, John 9:1-3). Then there will be those who accuse our God of letting people suffer. You will hear “If your God loves people, then why does he let them suffer so much?” Please remind them that no one has paid more dearly for the allowance of sin into the world. No one has so continuously grieved over the pain of a race gone bad as our father. No one has suffered like Jesus, who paid for our sin in his crucified body. Suffering will turn many to their creator. It is only the proud, pain-free westerner who will make such an accusation.

In the meantime, pray for those who suffer and give where opportunity arises.

God bless





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