Panic: COVID-19 And Human Survival

Hannibal Ad Portas.

These three words are ingrained in special history, one that has piqued my interest for quite some time now and something that I feel bears great importance and resemblance to our situation with COVID-19. That was a phrase the Ancient Romans used during the Punic Wars.

Loosely translated to “Hannibal is at the Gates”, it was used to signify a sense of doom and imminent danger. Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who won many victories against the Roman Empire in the Punic Wars. He marched his massive armies across the Alps and the Pyreenes on a campaign that would become one of the most famous in history, taking many victories in Southern Italy and threatening the mighty Ancient Roman Empire.

The ‘Gates’ referred to the those of Rome, the Roman Empire’s capital. He was an imminent and potent threat to the Empire, so much so that his armies were metaphorically right outside the city.

Why the historic harangue? It’s because much like Hannibal, Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is the looming threat at our doorstep, one that we have to actively fight to save lives. Corny as the analogy is, this is a crisis that we cannot afford to take lightly. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, one that we have quickly found ourselves unprepared for.

Photo by Heorhii Heorhiichuk on

With the massive amounts of information on this topic, I’m not writing this to restate facts, figures or even best practices with respect to hygiene. There’s many more intelligent people and respectable sources than my blog, like the WHO. I’m not attempting to fear-monger, or to dismiss the severity of this crisis.

But I do want to use this as a way to give you some perspective of why we’re in this mess, our history of dealing with pandemics, and why I’m optimistic.

The COVID-19 Backstory: The Chinese Famine of 1959-1961

Unbeknownst to many people, COVID-19 was doomed to happen for over 50 years. China suffered two years of famine in the late 1950s, where close to 30 million people starved under the regime of Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung). Under such a crisis and upon the scarcity of food, the regime loosened its control of what qualified as “consumable” and “farmable” meat, breaking the moderation of livestock to extend it to unconventional animals, such as bats, pangolins, turtles and snakes, among others.

A menu from a Chinese wet market. On display are animals such as deer, peacocks, rabbits and snakes.

Major agricultural producers dominated the pork and poultry production, but the new loosening of rules allowed private farmers to catch and rear wild animals. Of course, as more people started doing this out of desperation, the regime backed it and legalised (under the Wildlife Protection Law) it for widespread consumption.

The operation now became widespread, and large farms were established, where many of these animals were reared together. Inevitably, some of these animals carried their own viruses, which in such close proximity to different animals, cultivated a breeding ground for such diseases.

Thus, the sale and consumption of animals from these farms into Chinese wet markets has brought COVID-19 to our gates.

We’ve Weathered Every Pandemic: A Brief History

It’s quintessential to remember one simple fact: Every pandemic that came before this has been survived. Epidemics, plagues and pandemics are a historic and recurring set of crises that are unintended consequences of our globalisation and interaction as a species. From the very beginning of our time of forming communities (villages and towns), our living arrangements have been common, in that we’ve always lived in proximity to animals. Again, I don’t mean to scare you or rattle your sense of comfort. Let the following examples sink in of things we’ve survived.

The Bubonic Plague

Recounted as the worst pandemic of human history, this one began in what was the Byzantine Empire. Transferred from rats to fleas and then humans, quickly spreading on ships on trading routes, such as those linked to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

On average, 5,000 people died every single day, and by the time we had weathered the “Black Death”, as it was called, 100 million people had died, half the population of Europe. We now have N95 masks and sanitisers to hoard (and for some people, a lot of toilet paper?), but back then people turned to religion and whipped themselves to appease God’s wrath.

Measles, Smallpox and Chickenpox

We’ve also dealt with endemic diseases between pandemics, which lasted many decades and killed millions in that timespan. With these, we built immunity over time and with prolonged exposure, and it was this very immunity that Native Americans lacked when the European conquest of the “New World” began. It was germs, not weapons, that conquered the Americas.

The Spanish Flu

America’s deadliest pandemic, this reigned from 1918-1919, a strain of H1N1 (which again materialized as Swine Flu in 2009) ran rampant after World War 1, mostly killing young people, unlike COVID-19. This killed 50 million worldwide.

Much like it is now, the world handled this poorly. Officials downplayed the threats, and as people continued to perish, confidence in governments was lost. In some American cities, a grim scene beleaguered urban areas.

In some cities, trucks and carts drove down streets calling on people to “bring out their dead,” who were then buried in mass graves. Some victims, especially children, died of neglect and even starvation, as no one would enter infected houses to care for them.

The Hill
An awesome infographic from Visual Capitalist

Life At Home

For the foreseeable future, with cities in lockdown, most of us will be operating out of our homes for a while. As an introvert of the highest order (if I do say so myself) this seems like a normal and perfect day, but I know there are many of you that will be chomping at the bit to get back out again and resume the activities you do outside.

Here are a few things that, atleast for a while, could keep you engaged and active.

These were some that jumped out to me. Check out this list of 100 things.

Being confined at home gives us a range of curious benefits. The first is an encouragement to think. Whatever we like to believe, few of us do much of the solitary original bold kind of thinking that can restore our spirits and move our lives ahead.

The Book of Life

Given we’re in a window of time where we’ll stay inside and get all our news of the outside world from social media and news establishments. In a dire situation like this, I plead you to be Informed, not Terrified.


Sometimes it helps to see it quantified.

That’s why, I’ve picked a few charts and statistics that should ease your tension about this pandemic in a time where we’re taught to be fearful, suspicious of others and sometimes to let go of our humanity.

What We Know, Don’t, and Why I’m Optimistic

We don’t know how much longer this will last. We don’t know how many people will be infected. We also don’t know how many will perish. We don’t know how much of an economic beating our system will take.

What we do know, however, is this:

Social distancing flattens the curve. Caution, not panic, allows us to deal with the situation in an orderly manner. We have the supplies we need to weather this pandemic, but we need to distribute these to everyone in a systemic fashion. Panic buying and stockpiling doesn’t do anything to benefit us. What it does, however, is rob critical supplies from those that need it the most and are often the last to get those resources: the elderly, the less abled, and those with other ailments and circumstances.

Social distancing isn’t about being fearful: instead, it’s a braver commitment that in a time of crisis, we have the nobility and the resolve to take the tough decision for the health of those around us: those people that we may not even know, the ones who appear in our lives just as headlights in the other lane of the highway, the distant lighted windows at dusk or even the elderly people that exit the train a few stops before us.

And something else we do know:

Though Hannibal took many victories in Rome, the Romans rebounded, driving him out of Spain and launching their own campaign, with Hannibal suffering a devastating defeat within the year.

History doesn’t repeat itself. However, much like Hannibal’s defeat, history does have the power to offer us valuable lessons. The pandemics of the past have taught us many of those. What I know is that we have the opportunity, now, to deal our own defeat to this pandemic.

On that note, it’s important to remember that we have far more knowledge, better orchestration of resources and more efficient communication than our ancestors did in the past.

We’re all in this, together.

Further Reading

I suggest watching Vox’s elaborate video on the history of this pandemic, and others that seem to originate just like it.

Charts sourced from:

and if you’re a history buff like me, read more on what Hannibal achieved.

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