What Were the ‘Virgin Soil Epidemics’?

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virgin soil epidemics
Image: CDC/ F. A. Murphy

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which began in February in China, has over thirty million confirmed cases around the globe with an increasing death toll. Even though the crisis is the longest so far in the past century, it is not the first one that has changed the world. Prior to the current pandemic, virgin soil epidemics also impacted life significantly.

At the moment, scientists and the general population compare the coronavirus crisis to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 as it is the closest out of all epidemics which have occurred in the world.

Although the number of cases of the Spanish flu and deaths was much higher than that of coronavirus, pandemics that took place in the medieval ages were far deadlier and play a major role in shaping the modern-day world.

Many of the diseases that exist today which are considered ‘everyday’ or minor health conditions once led to eradicating the entire population of an area during the 1500s and 1600s in the Americas. The series of such conditions spreading amongst the areas is called the virgin soil epidemics.

The name of these outbreaks is given because they were brought by European travelers and foreigners on the land. Prior to the discovery of the Americas by travelers like Christopher Columbus, many of the diseases did not exist amongst the native tribes.

The Native Americans did not have any immunity against pathogens including smallpox, chickenpox, measles, influenza, and mumps, which is why a big number of them lost their lives against these diseases as they spread from the Europeans.

The current health crisis has also shown that many of the groups are vulnerable and at a higher risk of contracting and developing a severe form of the coronavirus infection as well as long-term effects on the health.

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For instance, health experts have warned people with existent medical conditions such as obesity, metabolic disorder, heart disease, arthritis, and older adults to stay more cautious and take additional precautions in order to avoid the virus.

The majority of the coronavirus deaths have either occurred in the older population or in people with other illnesses. However, in comparison with the epidemics of the medieval centuries, the number of vulnerable people is not as high.

During the virgin soil epidemics, the Native Americans faced a large number of difficulties. As multiple diseases swept through the lands, nearly every other person was infected which left no one to look after crop cultivation, leading to a shortage of food.

The epidemics were also one of the primary reasons the resistance to European occupation was significantly reduced. According to historians, the population of Native Americans prior to being discovered by foreigners was more than one hundred million.

As soon as Europeans started traveling to the Americas, the population reduced at an alarming rate and by the end of the century, approximately ninety-five percent of the people passed away due to multiple diseases.

It should also be noted that the native tribes had very limited contact with any foreigners visiting the lands but the pathogens still managed to transmit and infect the local population rapidly.

Unlike the coronavirus pandemic, the virgin soil epidemics did not only cause a big number of deaths but also likely eradicated many of the local cultures of the Americas.

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