Regular readers: no post on Saturday.
Here’s a nifty plot showing the percent of the world’s population rubbed out by various epidemics. The percent population makes sense as a natural measure of disruption: the higher the number, the greater influence on those left alive, and even those yet to be born.
The list of epidemics is from Wikipedia, so only the Lord knows the accuracy of it. A glance through shows no obvious whoppers.
There is uncertainty in all these numbers. Whoever made the entry for the Spanish flu, for instance, took his number from among the higher estimates (some estimates are about half of this).
I plotted the median date of each plague, epidemic, and pandemic against the median of the estimated killed. For the world population estimates, I again used Wiki and Google. I used the R function
approxfun to interpolate missing numbers (feeding it with logged population and then exponentiating), and used a sanity check plot to see how well the extrapolation worked (just dandy).
Somebody was epidemic happy on Wiki, for after about 1900 or so, clusters of deaths of sizes even in the 20s were counted as “epidemics.” This is silly, so I only used data where the body count is at least 2,000.
This illustrates another point. Measurement availability bias. There are many, many more observations from modern times than in historical. This is for two reasons: ignorance on the part of Wiki editors, and indifference or bad memories—meaning lack of records from earlier times. We’re much more sensitive to death than our forebears. It’s only we moderns who are hypernumeric, assigning hard quantitative value to everything.
That’s the kind of thing you find out when you go back to civilization: what date it is and time of day, how many mile from Fort Leavenworth and how much the sutlers is getting for tobacco there, how many beers Flanagan drunk and how many times Hoffmann did it with a harlot. Numbers, numbers, I had forgot how important they was. —Little Big Man
This chart, then, is only illustrative of major events, deaths on scales large enough our ancestors thought to record. Since we lack early records on death counts, it will seem as if death and destruction from disease occur more frequently now. This might even be true, but we can’t know it. There is certainly the possibility that because there are so many of use alive now, the chance of at least some people coming down with a fatal cough is larger than in historical times.
There are many plagues recorded without death counts. Only just over half the noted epidemics have death tolls. Early ones, such as the 412 BC epidemic, are listed as having happened, but we (or I) don’t know how many died. The plot is therefore incomplete.
Some of the events are far spread out in time, like the smallpox pandemic, which ran from 1877 to 1977, but which is plotted as happening in just one year midway through. In one sense this is fair, because the huge body count needs to be emphasized. In another sense it is not fair, because the deaths ebbed and flowed over a century.
Pandemics were also harder to come by in ancient days, owning the lack of widespread travel. That doesn’t mean death didn’t have a grand old time. Just look at that Plague of Justinian, which almost matched the scale of the Black Death.
At last, here it is: click here to embiggen.
It’s there, but you can’t see 2009’s swine flu pandemic, which whacked 364,000 (estimated range 151,700-575,400), which was 0.005% of the population. You can see, barely, the 1957-1958 pandemic, which killed 2 million.
SARS? Break out your electron scanning microscope and zoom in on 2003: 0.00001% of the world’s population bought it then. Zika? Which I wouldn’t mention, except that the headline to death ratio for this disease might best them all: 53 dead, untold numbers of headlines.
The other spike, oddly positioned at 1960, is the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has killed 32 million, and is still going strong. It’s at 1960 because Wiki insists it began in 1920, and I picked the median between that and 2020. Well, HIV is a very political disease, and in politics common sense is verboten. Ignoring all that, the wee blip to the left of the HIV line is the 1958 pandemic.
The coronavirus panicdemic of 2020 is at the end. So far it has killed about 0.0003% of the world’s population. But many experts (with wondrous credentials) say it’ll slaughter at least a million, if not more.
Suppose it’s Spanish Flu strength and make it 60 million. That would make it 0.8% of the population. Whereas the Spanish Flu itself muertaed 3%. Proving the Chinese are wimps next to Spaniards.
All right, that’s too many years ago. How about since 1900, and cutting out the smallpox. Which doesn’t count because—well, because the media has never heard of it. I made this one lower-res, but you can still embiggen.
The bubonic plague from 1908 comes into focus. Probably nobody remembers it anyway, even though it assassinated 12 million. If they didn’t remember that, who’s even heard the term encephalitis lethargica? A.k.a. sleeping sickness. Whacked 1.5 million.
The ’58 Asian flu is now visible (2 million bodies), as is the Hong Kong chop suey fluy from 1968-1969 (1 million bodies).
HIV/AIDS is, of course, more concentrated in the 1980s, but it’s not shown there.
The Wuhan flu—anybody sensing a pattern here—is at the end. Can you see it? No?
Let’s cut out HIV, which can be controlled by avoiding such things as sodomy and dirty drug needles, and also cut out the Spanish Flu. Let’s look only at the post-WWII era, the era of sparkling hospitals and sterling medical care.
Ebola has arrived! Many blood-curdling journalism pieces on that one. Movies, too, if memory serves. Just one drop of infected blood is enough to make you bleed out. They said. Here, ebola has to share billing with the Haitian cholera outbreak, which edged out ebola in body count: 10 thousand for ebola, about 12 thousand for cholera. Don’t count out the classics!
What happened to SARS in 2004? Fairly decent media panic for that one. No Pulitzers or anything, but a respectable number of what-about-the-children crying coverage. Not enough of a corpse pile to show. It didn’t even make 1,000! An anemic 772.
We can finally see our latest Chinese export at the end, for now tying ebola/cholera.
Coronavirus will certainly increase. Our naive model (which will be updated next Tuesday) has total deaths now about 58 thousand. Probably too small, because we haven’t hit the peak yet. We’re at 25 thousand now. Quadruple that to 100 thousand. If that holds, even the nobody-panicked Swine Flu’s lower estimate would still emerge victorious.
The coronavirus columnists’ cataclysm we know. Yet why didn’t we see the same level of flaming hair hysteria for Swine Flu? Nobody’s scared of pigs, from which comes bacon, but people are alarmed by bats? Twitter? Increase in the power of the matriarchy? Different American President? All of these? None? Others? Tell me. I’m listening.
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