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A Statistical Comparison

By: Eunice Kim

The pandemic putting the entire global population into quarantine started only a last year. But with over 20 million cases in a matter of 8 months, it quickly became the greatest pandemic the world has ever seen in over a century. In December of 2019, numerous cases of what seemed to be severe pneumonia were reported in the city of Wuhan, China. Although it only started with a few cases, in only a few weeks, it became clear that this disease was nothing anyone had ever seen before. Unbeknownst to the world, this became the birth of what is now known as COVID-19, or in more general terms, the coronavirus pandemic. A global pandemic is not a common occurrence. However, humans have experienced their fair share of devastation from them throughout history. In this article, we will examine several of the most disastrous pandemics to have ever ravaged the world and perform a statistical comparison between them and today’s pandemic to be able to truly understand how overwhelming the numbers of COVID-19 are.


Timespan: 1981 – Present

Total Cases: 76 million

Death Toll: 36 million

Mortality Rate: estimate unavailable 

Transmission: direct contact with certain body fluids (blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, breast milk) from a person with HIV


Place of Origin: the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976

Description: HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks cells in the immune system. This weakens the body’s ability to fight infection, so that a person help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable infections and diseases that a healthy individual may usually be able to resist. The worst case of HIV leads to a disease called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Comparison to COVID-19: There are many characteristics of HIV that contrast with COVID-19, the most notable being their means of transmission. While COVID-19 spreads throughout respiratory droplets from coughs or sneezes, HIV is spread by bodily fluids. Secondly, although HIV may have a much greater death toll and total cases worldwide, COVID-19 has undoubtedly spread more rapidly. Lastly, both COVID-19 and HIV do not have any known cure, but there are now antiretroviral medications that enable individuals infected with HIV to lead long and healthy lives. 


Timespan: 1817–1824, 1829–1837, 1846–1860, 1863–1875, 1881–1896, 1899–1923, 1961–1975

Total Cases: 1.3 million to 4.0 million cases annually

Death Toll:  21,000 to 143,000 deaths annually

Mortality Rate: less than 1% if treated properly, 50-60% if untreated

Transmission: ingestion of water or food contaminated by the feces of an infected person, raw or undercooked seafood

Cause: Vibrio cholerae

Place of Origin: India in 1817

Description: Cholera is a bacterial infection that affects the small intestine. Although some of its symptoms include vomiting and muscle cramps, the most common symptom of cholera is diarrhea. Cholera is particularly dangerous because it can be fatal within hours without proper treatment. 

Comparison to COVID-19: Cholera has a few similarities with COVID-19, one of which is a method of prevention: washing your hands. However, while COVID-19 has not yet had numerous returns, cholera has had a grand total of seven outbreaks worldwide. Lastly, while COVID-19 has no cure, there is immediate rehydration treatment for those with cholera that has a success rate of up to 80% of cases.

Black Death

Timespan: 1346-1353

Total Cases: unknown

Death Toll: 75–200 million

Transmission: unknown; best-hypothesized method: proximity 

Cause: Yersinia pestis (Bubonic Plague)

Place of Origin: Mongolia in 1346

Description: The Black Death was an epidemic of Bubonic Plague, a disease spread by rodents with fleas infected by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The Black Death is still considered by all as the most disastrous pandemic the world has ever experienced. Almost 700 years later, scientists are still confused regarding its method of contagion. The Black Death’s most frightening statistic may arguably be that it caused the deaths of half the entire population of Europe at the time. 

Comparison to COVID-19: Like COVID-19, the Black Death has had an alarmingly rapid rate of transmission, as well as a frightening death toll within a short span of time. Another similarity between the two pandemics is that they both spread by respiratory droplets. However, while COVID-19 mostly transmitted by human movement, the Black Death can attribute its swift worldwide spread to rodents. 

Spanish flu

Timespan: 1918-1920

Total Cases: 500 million

Death Toll: 50 million

Mortality Rate: 2.5%

Transmission: respiratory droplets

Cause: Influenza

Place of Origin: United States military personnel in 1918

Description: Also called the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Spanish flu was an H1N1 virus plaguing United States military personnel. Although influenza has been around for a long time, the Spanish flu was unusually deadly, infecting approximately 500 million people. Shockingly, this amounted to around 1 in 3 individuals on Earth at that time, making it the most severe pandemic in recent history. 

Comparison to COVID-19: While COVID-19’s impact on younger individuals is relatively minor, the Spanish flu struck children under the age of 5, as well as adults aged 20-40. In fact, the younger adult was more likely to die from the Spanish flu than an older one, in stark contrast to COVID-19. However, a similarity between the two pandemics is that both share the same method of transmission: respiratory droplets. 


Timespan: 2019-present

Total Cases: 20 million 

Death Toll: 734,000

Mortality Rate: 2.5%

Transmission: respiratory droplets

Cause: SARS-CoV-2

Place of Origin: Wuhan, China, in 2019

Description: Informally known as the coronavirus, or simply corona, COVID-19 is one the fastest spreading viruses the world has ever seen in recent history. With no signs of surrendering to human attempts to enforce quarantine, masks, and other methods of preventing transmission, COVID-19 continues to kill thousands every day even with countless scientists are racing to find a cure or vaccine. It has put the entire world on hold, with 213 countries or territories already infected. 


Examining only one of these statistics may lead to misunderstandings when understanding each pandemic’s severity because there are too many factors to consider to accurately rank these pandemics. Therefore, this article did not give an exact answer to which of these was most devastating, but rather provided the same statistics for COVID-19 as provided for the other four pandemics. By doing so, the article fulfills its purpose to help readers simply understand the ferocity of the virus that the world is facing today, recognize the need to follow the enforced rules of social distancing, and equip themselves to learn from history’s hardships to not make the same mistakes. 

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