Corona in context: not the first epidemic to plague us


Corona continues to rule our lives and activities, after causing over 1.3 million deaths worldwide, of which 15,000 in Belgium. Yet what appears to be reaching unseen and unknown proportions is certainly not the first epidemic to have been felt in this area.

With the rapid and global spread of the corona virus we forget that infectious diseases were the primary cause of death until 100 years ago. Professor Isabelle Devos puts corona into a historical context.

Deadly periods from the plague to the Spanish flu

There have always been epidemics, but none have been on the same scale as Covid-19 in terms of deaths, according to Devos, historical demographer, associated with the History department and coordinator of Ghent University’s Quetelet Center. This centre of expertise facilitates such research into, for example, demographic developments. “In Medieval times it was the plague that claimed many victims. During the Black Death, which lasted from 1348 to 1351, as much as a quarter of our population was wiped out and society was utterly devastated.” From then on we were hit by a small or large wave of plague pretty much every decade. It wasn’t until the end of the 1660s that the plague bacteria last affected our local region.

Using the Stream- and Hisster databases at the Quetelet Center, Devos has established that other infectious diseases like the pox, dysentery, typhus and cholera caused regular and heavy outbreaks. About 43,400 victims died in our country during the cholera epidemic in 1866. An epidemic often went hand in hand with a war or failed harvest, which allowed the disease to spread fast and claim lives without mercy. The Spanish Flu broke out at the end of the First World War, killing at least ten million people worldwide, and some even claim a hundred million. At the time, the virus was estimated to have claimed 20,000 lives in Belgium, however, based on new data Devos believes this number to be double or triple.

Medieval quarantine

The disappearance of epidemics like the Black Death and the Spanish Flu are still a mystery, even today. “Possible reasons include increasing immunity among the population and virus mutations which spread less rapidly”, says Devos. “However, the impact of good prevention measures is another possibility. The corona measures that we are now obliged to follow, given the fact there is no available medicine or vaccine, are really old in fact. Mouth masks, quarantine, patient isolation, health passports and a ban on gatherings are all methods we’ve been employing since the Middle Ages as soon as a deadly disease reared its head.”

"The corona measures are methods we’ve been employing since the Middle Ages."

Devos is not only researching which illnesses used to prevail, but above all which groups were affected. By identifying what happened in the past she gains insights into the groups that were vulnerable, and how care, hygiene and medical knowledge were approached. And it appears there were great differences depending on the period and the disease.

Equality in an epidemic?

Not everyone ran the same risk of dying in an epidemic. The Black Death did not distinguish between old and young, however, later waves of plague affected adults and the elderly most of all. In the nineteenth century, cholera hit all age groups in the population, but predominantly young children and the elderly during the great epidemic in 1866. During the Spanish Flu it was young adults who paid the highest price, while Covid-19 is hitting the oldest members of the population hardest. When it comes to gender the research results are more straightforward: men are apparently the most vulnerable.

"Social inequality is seen not only in life, but also in death."

Opinions are divided when asking whether an epidemic brings equality between rich and poor. “According to some researchers the exceptionally high mortality rate caused by the Black Death led to a redistribution of wealth. Others point out the great misery and vicious circle of poverty in which many families landed”, says Devos. Recent research conducted by Devos and her team on the cholera epidemic of 1866 in Brussels, based on a variety of databases in the Quetelet Center, reveal that the epidemic was highly selective in its manifestation. The epidemic affected poor households far earlier and far harder than the more prosperous.


Also, recent research on corona so far suggests that the virus is not something that affects everyone in the same way. On the contrary. In fact, the epidemic makes inequality very visible. Indeed, social inequality is seen not only in life, but also in death.

Social inequality in death

This is the reason why Devos recently joined her colleagues at the Quetelet Center and the Antwerp Centre for Urban History, in launching the citizen science project called S.O.S. Antwerp. With help from volunteers they are currently transcribing and analysing the unique cause of death register in the city of Antwerp.

This handwritten register contains the details of all those who died in the city between 1820 and 1946. In addition to the cause of death there are also details of the age, gender, profession and many other kinds of personal information, covering almost half a million people. On this basis it will be possible to study the evolution in time of health differences between men and women, young and old, and rich and poor. This means it is not only interesting for people living in Antwerp, but also those further afield.

Approximately 500 volunteers have already set to work, however, extra help is certainly still welcome. Those looking for a useful activity, which can be carried out at home during the corona period, can find all the relevant information on

The Quetelet Center

Corona in context: pioneering research

Research into epidemics and other historic events requires proper facts and reliable historical data. In order to respond to the growing demand, Ghent University founded the Quetelet Center. This centre of expertise specialises in historical figures, and helps both researchers and the general public in using it. The centre has a variety of large databases containing unique details about the population, economy, agriculture, housing, spatial planning, property ownership, institutional organisation and other topics in Belgian history from the period 1500 to around 2000.

The Quetelet Center promotes the use of this research data, helps people to use data in a scientifically responsible manner and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration.

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