Relative Horror: The Plagues of the Past and AIDS 

While the modern age certainly has its health concerns, they are very modest compared to the sweeping plagues of pre-modern times. Diseases such as AIDS are a concern to many, yet we know, in general, how exposure to such viruses can be significantly reduced. When compared to the sweeping epidemics that have plagued our ancestors, who had not much more than guesswork as to their causes, we’re not so badly off.

These sweeping epidemics and plagues have been recorded in many different places and times:

  • 430 B.C. in Athens — possibly smallpox or typhus
  • The repeated epidemics during the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius — probably measles and smallpox
  • The great plague of Justinian and the Black Death of Medieval Europe (the bubonic plague)
  • Similar catastrophes in China
  • The variety of diseases which killed off whole indigenous populations after the first encounter between the New World and Old World in 1492

These plagues and epidemics often wiped out entire villages, families and high percentages of the populations which were subjected to them. By comparison, AIDS claimed 30,000 lives in America in 1991 and 28,000 in 1990; a true plague of Medieval proportions in modern America would probably claim at least 1,000 times as many lives.

We no longer face catastrophic epidemic infections, and even many pervasive infections have been banished. The virtual eradication of diseases such as smallpox and the effective control of other historic killers have freed humanity from the haunting fear that, at any moment, one could be at death’s door.

: “The State of Humanity,” edited by Julian Simon, 1995.

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