A History Lesson On Viral Pandemics And Vulnerable Populations

Raphael Alegbeleye/PantherNOW

Hayley Serpa/Staff Writer

In 1492, Christopher Columbus’ fateful voyage marked an endless stream of cultural, social and economic diffusion between the “Old World” of the East and the “New Western World”—two landmasses that were previously unaware of each other’s existence. Yet, cultural and socioeconomic structures were not the only things transferred during the early 16th-century Columbian Exchange. A multitude of  “Old World” diseases, including smallpox, cholera and typhus, fatally descended down on the indigenous populations of the Americas after the global gateway opened. 

This arrival of deadly diseases would mark the start of the close relationship between viral outbreaks and vulnerable populations in the United States, which is still reflected in today’s COVID-19 world. The healthcare situation that we are in currently was created by the mistakes of those governing before us. As a united nation, we must recognize that the U.S. government is responsible for the predicament our most vulnerable populations face, and thus, must see the error in their old ways and vouch for free national healthcare for all citizens. 

According to the American Journal of Managed Care, the most vulnerable groups in the U.S. healthcare system include people of color, low-income individuals and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Each of these groups began their history as a vulnerable population during previous viral outbreaks and are currently at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The first of these close relationships would be between the indigenous populations of North America and smallpox. 

The smallpox epidemics of pre-independent North America would decimate the Native American population by about 90% of what it had been, prior to the entrance of the Americas on the global scene. These same indigenous groups had never priorly been exposed to the diseases and thus had not built up the necessary immunity to fight off the disease if they contracted it.

However, it is misleading to only believe in these “virgin-soil epidemic” theory while failing to recognize the other factors. What this theory fails to explain is why, even today, after hundreds of years of previous exposure to diseases, the indigenous community is still at higher risk than other groups inside the U.S.

Examples of other factors that increase the health disparity gap between indigenous communities and other U.S. groups are access to nutritious food, clean water and necessary sanitation services. Many Native American populations lack these basic resources and are therefore more exposed to contracting the deadly coronavirus. The result of this disparity can be seen in the mid-May announcement of the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest having the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate. With over 4,002 reported cases, it had even managed to overtake New York as the “Covid-19 Capital” inside the U.S. at the time. 

The 1918 H1N1 “Spanish Flu” pandemic would mark another close relationship between a vulnerable population and a viral pandemic. During this outbreak, approximately a third of the entire world population became infected with the virus strain. The same virus would be the cause of many other pandemics both inside and outside U.S. soil. 

The population most affected by the 1918 Flu pandemic and it’s later related outbreaks are the lower classes. A study conducted in 2018 found that there existed a negative relationship between socioeconomic status and the influenza illness. The more socioeconomically disadvantaged an individual was, the higher the risk that they would contract the 1918 H1N1 virus strain. 

This statement remains true for COVID in 2020. Under-resourced communities already have less access to high-quality healthcare and frequently suffer from various illnesses. Examples of some of these illnesses are diabetes, heart disease and pulmonary issues. Further research has demonstrated that it is harder for under-resourced families to obtain the necessary vaccinations. 

The HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s has deeply impacted the thriving LGBTQ+ community inside the U.S. It also disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ individuals. Gay and bisexual men make up only 2% of the U.S. population according to a U.S. census from 2013, but constitute 55% of all those individuals living in the U.S. with HIV. The transgender community is even more at risk of dying from the AIDS virus. Transgender women are 49 times more likely to pass away than the general population after being infected by HIV. 

These numbers show a clear injustice occurring in the U.S. healthcare system. They also show the existence of a historic relationship between vulnerable populations and the viral pandemic that continues to dictate our most at-risk individuals. In today’s U.S. society, our historically vulnerable populations continue to consist of people of color, lower-income communities and the LGBTQ+ populace. 

It is our job as a progressive, modern civilization to improve healthcare for our most at-risk populations. There is a reason why our most vulnerable groups have stayed the same and that is due to our ineffective governance that pays little regard to the suffering groups within our Western society. It is time for a change.


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

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