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Visualizing the History of Pandemics

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History of Pandemics 16 March 2021 Update

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The History of Pandemics

Pan·dem·ic /panˈdemik/ (of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world.

As humans have spread across the world, so have infectious diseases. Even in this modern era, outbreaks are nearly constant, though not every outbreak reaches pandemic level as COVID-19 has.

Today’s visualization outlines some of history’s most deadly pandemics, from the Antonine Plague to the current COVID-19 event.

A Timeline of Historical Pandemics

Disease and illnesses have plagued humanity since the earliest days, our mortal flaw. However, it was not until the marked shift to agrarian communities that the scale and spread of these diseases increased dramatically.

Widespread trade created new opportunities for human and animal interactions that sped up such epidemics. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, smallpox, and others first appeared during these early years.

The more civilized humans became – with larger cities, more exotic trade routes, and increased contact with different populations of people, animals, and ecosystems – the more likely pandemics would occur.

Here are some of the major pandemics that have occurred over time:

NameTime periodType / Pre-human hostDeath toll
Antonine Plague165-180Believed to be either smallpox or measles5M
Japanese smallpox epidemic735-737Variola major virus1M
Plague of Justinian541-542Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas30-50M
Black Death1347-1351Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas200M
New World Smallpox Outbreak1520 – onwardsVariola major virus56M
Great Plague of London1665Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas100,000
Italian plague1629-1631Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas1M
Cholera Pandemics 1-61817-1923V. cholerae bacteria1M+
Third Plague1885Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas12M (China and India)
Yellow FeverLate 1800sVirus / Mosquitoes100,000-150,000 (U.S.)
Russian Flu1889-1890Believed to be H2N2 (avian origin)1M
Spanish Flu1918-1919H1N1 virus / Pigs40-50M
Asian Flu1957-1958H2N2 virus1.1M
Hong Kong Flu1968-1970H3N2 virus1M
HIV/AIDS1981-presentVirus / Chimpanzees25-35M
Swine Flu2009-2010H1N1 virus / Pigs200,000
SARS2002-2003Coronavirus / Bats, Civets770
Ebola2014-2016Ebolavirus / Wild animals11,000
MERS2015-PresentCoronavirus / Bats, camels850
COVID-192019-PresentCoronavirus – Unknown (possibly pangolins)2.7M (Johns Hopkins University estimate as of March 16, 2021)

Note: Many of the death toll numbers listed above are best estimates based on available research. Some, such as the Plague of Justinian and Swine Flu, are subject to debate based on new evidence.

Despite the persistence of disease and pandemics throughout history, there’s one consistent trend over time – a gradual reduction in the death rate. Healthcare improvements and understanding the factors that incubate pandemics have been powerful tools in mitigating their impact.

March 15, 2021 Update: Due to popular request, we’ve also visualized how the death tolls of each pandemic stack up as a share of total estimated global populations at the time.

Pandemic Death Toll by Share of Population - Supplemental

Wrath of the Gods

In many ancient societies, people believed that spirits and gods inflicted disease and destruction upon those that deserved their wrath. This unscientific perception often led to disastrous responses that resulted in the deaths of thousands, if not millions.

In the case of Justinian’s plague, the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea traced the origins of the plague (the Yersinia pestis bacteria) to China and northeast India, via land and sea trade routes to Egypt where it entered the Byzantine Empire through Mediterranean ports.

Despite his apparent knowledge of the role geography and trade played in this spread, Procopius laid blame for the outbreak on the Emperor Justinian, declaring him to be either a devil, or invoking God’s punishment for his evil ways. Some historians found that this event could have dashed Emperor Justinian’s efforts to reunite the Western and Eastern remnants of the Roman Empire, and marked the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Luckily, humanity’s understanding of the causes of disease has improved, and this is resulting in a drastic improvement in the response to modern pandemics, albeit slow and incomplete.

Importing Disease

The practice of quarantine began during the 14th century, in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Cautious port authorities required ships arriving in Venice from infected ports to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing — the origin of the word quarantine from the Italian “quaranta giorni”, or 40 days.

One of the first instances of relying on geography and statistical analysis was in mid-19th century London, during a cholera outbreak. In 1854, Dr. John Snow came to the conclusion that cholera was spreading via tainted water and decided to display neighborhood mortality data directly on a map. This method revealed a cluster of cases around a specific pump from which people were drawing their water from.

While the interactions created through trade and urban life play a pivotal role, it is also the virulent nature of particular diseases that indicate the trajectory of a pandemic.

Tracking Infectiousness

Scientists use a basic measure to track the infectiousness of a disease called the reproduction number — also known as R0 or “R naught.” This number tells us how many susceptible people, on average, each sick person will in turn infect.

Measles tops the list, being the most contagious with a R0 range of 12-18. This means a single person can infect, on average, 12 to 18 people in an unvaccinated population.

While measles may be the most virulent, vaccination efforts and herd immunity can curb its spread. The more people are immune to a disease, the less likely it is to proliferate, making vaccinations critical to prevent the resurgence of known and treatable diseases.

It’s hard to calculate and forecast the true impact of COVID-19, as the outbreak is still ongoing and researchers are still learning about this new form of coronavirus.

Urbanization and the Spread of Disease

We arrive at where we began, with rising global connections and interactions as a driving force behind pandemics. From small hunting and gathering tribes to the metropolis, humanity’s reliance on one another has also sparked opportunities for disease to spread.

Urbanization in the developing world is bringing more and more rural residents into denser neighborhoods, while population increases are putting greater pressure on the environment. At the same time, passenger air traffic nearly doubled in the past decade. These macro trends are having a profound impact on the spread of infectious disease.

As organizations and governments around the world ask for citizens to practice social distancing to help reduce the rate of infection, the digital world is allowing people to maintain connections and commerce like never before.

Editor’s Note: The COVID-19 pandemic is in its early stages and it is obviously impossible to predict its future impact. This post and infographic are meant to provide historical context, and we will continue to update it as time goes on to maintain its accuracy.

Update (March 15, 2020): We’ve adjusted the death toll for COVID-19, and will continue to update on a regular basis.

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Politics

Mapped: The World’s Top Countries for Military Spending

Global military spending is now at a 32-year high. We show countries’ military spending by dollars and as a portion of GDP.

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Mapped: The World’s Top Countries for Military Spending

By practically any measure, the world today is more peaceful and less war-torn on a global scale, relative to the past.

For instance, declarations of war between nations and soldier casualties have both dropped drastically since the 20th century. Yet, military spending has not followed this trend.

The Top 10 Military Spenders

According to SIPRI, global military spend reached almost $2 trillion in 2020. The top 10 countries represent roughly 75% of this figure, and have increased their spending by $51 billion since the year prior.

Here’s how the worlds top 10 military spenders compare to each other:

RankCountryMilitary Spend 2020 ($B)% ChangeMilitary Spend 2019 ($B)
#1🇺🇸 United States $778.0+6.2%$732.0
#2🇨🇳 China$252.0-3.4%$261.0
#3🇮🇳 India$72.9+2.5%$71.1
#4🇷🇺 Russia$61.7-5.2%$65.1
#5🇬🇧 United Kingdom$59.2+21.5%$48.7
#6🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia$57.5-7.1%$61.9
#7🇩🇪 Germany$52.8+7.1%$61.9
#8🇫🇷 France$52.7+5.1%$50.1
#9🇯🇵 Japan$49.1+3.1%$47.6
#10🇰🇷 South Korea$45.7+4.1%$43.9
Total$1,481.6+3.5%$1,430.7

The U.S. isn’t labeled as a global superpower for nothing. The country is by far the largest military spender, and its $778 billion budget trumps the remainder of the list’s collective $703.6 billion. On its own, the U.S. represents just under 40% of global military spending.

This year, Saudi Arabia has lost out on a top five seat to the UK, after a 7.1% decline in spending compared to a 21.5% increase for the UK.

Military Spend as a Percentage of GDP

Military expenditures as a percentage of GDP can be used to compare military spending relative to the size of a country’s economy.

Military Spend as a Share of GDP

Click here to view a high-resolution version of this image.

When looking at things this way, many of the top spenders above do not appear. This may be an indication of their economic prowess or a demonstration that the money might be used for other vital areas such as education, healthcare, or infrastructure.

RankCountryRegionSpend as a % of GDP (2020)
#1🇴🇲 OmanMiddle East11.0%
#2🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaMiddle East8.4%
#3🇩🇿 AlgeriaNorth Africa6.7%
#4🇰🇼 KuwaitMiddle East6.5%
#5🇮🇱 IsraelMiddle East5.6%
#6🇷🇺 RussiaEurope/Asia4.3%
#7🇲🇦 MoroccoNorth Africa4.3%
#8🇮🇶 IraqMiddle East4.1%
#9🇺🇦 UkraineEurope4.1%
#10🇵🇰 PakistanSouth Asia4.0%

It’s pretty rare for countries to reach double digits for military spending as a percentage of GDP. In this case, Oman is an outlier, as the Middle Eastern country’s spending relative to GDP grew from 8.8% last year, to 11% in 2020.

Many of the countries with the highest military spending to GDP are located in the Middle East—a reflection of the escalating conflicts that have persisted in the region for well over two decades.

It’s worth noting that some data for the Middle Eastern region are estimates, due to the aforementioned regional instability.

More Spending to Come?

Global military spending figures are at a 32-year high, despite the pandemic’s effect on shrinking economic output.

World Military Spend 1988-2020

Although a major war hasn’t occurred in some time, it’s not to say the geopolitical mood hasn’t been tense.

The last 12 months or so have witnessed some nail-biting moments including:

  • Border disputes between China and India
  • Heightening tensions between China and Taiwan
  • Russia’s military presence in eastern Ukraine
  • The hacking of SolarWinds, a Texas-based company, by Russia
  • The ongoing Yemen crisis
  • An Israel-Iran feud

Will 2021 extend the trend of peace, or will rising military spending mean even higher tensions?

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Technology

The World’s Top 50 Influencers Across Social Media Platforms

Which influencers have the most total social media followers? We tally up follower counts across all major platforms, from Twitter to TikTok.

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Most-followed social media influencers across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch

Visualizing the World’s Top 50 Influencers

In the modern digital world, social media reach is power.

The people with the most followers on Twitter, for example, have a massive platform to spread their messages, while those with large, engaged followings on Instagram are an advertiser’s dream sponsor partner.

Social media can also be an equalizer of power. It’s true that many celebrities boast large followings across platforms, but social media has also enabled previously unknown personalities to turn YouTube or TikTok fame into veritable star power and influence.

Who has the biggest reach across the entire social media universe? Instead of looking at who has the most followers on Instagram, Twitter, or other networks, we ranked the most-followed personalities across all major platforms combined.

Who Has the Most Overall Followers on Social Media?

We parsed through hundreds of the most-followed accounts on multiple platforms to narrow down the top influencers across social media as of April 2021.

Sources include trackers of the most followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok, verified directly on site and with social media tracker Socialblade.

The results? A top 50 list of social media influencers consisting of athletes, musicians, politicians, and other personalities.

RankNameCategoryTotal FollowersBiggest Platform
#1Cristiano RonaldoSports493MInstagram
#2Justin BieberMusic443MInstagram
#3Ariana GrandeMusic429MInstagram
#4Selena GomezMusic403MInstagram
#5Taylor SwiftMusic361MInstagram
#6Dwayne JohnsonFilm & TV342MInstagram
#7Katy PerryMusic338MInstagram
#8Kylie JennerOther333MInstagram
#9RihannaMusic330MTwitter
#10Kim KardashianOther319MInstagram
#11Lionel MessiSports298MInstagram
#12ShakiraMusic281MFacebook
#13NeymarSports279MInstagram
#14BeyoncéMusic267MInstagram
#15Jennifer LopezMusic267MInstagram
#16Ellen DeGeneresFilm & TV254MInstagram
#17Miley CyrusMusic235MInstagram
#18Nicki MinajMusic232MInstagram
#19Barack ObamaPolitics222MTwitter
#20Will SmithFilm & TV217MFacebook
#21Demi LovatoMusic212MInstagram
#22Kendall JennerOther212MInstagram
#23Lady GagaMusic210MTwitter
#24Virat KohliSports194MInstagram
#25EminemMusic193MFacebook
#26Kevin HartFilm & TV191MInstagram
#27DrakeMusic191MInstagram
#28Bruno MarsMusic188MFacebook
#29Chris BrownMusic186MInstagram
#30Khloé KardashianOther184MInstagram
#31Vin DieselFilm & TV176MFacebook
#32Narendra ModiPolitics175MTwitter
#33Justin TimberlakeMusic170MTwitter
#34Charli D'AmelioOther168MTikTok
#35Kourtney KardashianOther160MInstagram
#36AdeleMusic155MFacebook
#37LeBron JamesSports155MInstagram
#38Billie EilishMusic153MInstagram
#39Whindersson Nunes BatistaOther144MInstagram
#40Wiz KhalifaMusic143MFacebook
#41Akshay KumarFilm & TV140MInstagram
#42Germán GarmendiaGaming140MYoutube
#43Felix "PewDiePie" KjellbergGaming139MYoutube
#44Cardi BMusic139MInstagram
#45Snoop DoggMusic138MInstagram
#46Deepika PadukoneFilm & TV137MInstagram
#47Britney SpearsMusic134MTwitter
#48Salman KhanFilm & TV134MFacebook
#49Priyanka ChopraFilm & TV129MInstagram
#50Shawn MendesMusic128MInstagram

Unsurprisingly, celebrities reign supreme on social media. As of April 2021, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was the most-followed person on social media with almost 500 million total followers.

But there are other illuminating highlights, such as the global reach of music. With large and diverse fanbases, artists account for half of the top 50 largest social media followings.

Also notable is the power of Instagram, which was the biggest platform for 67% of the top 50 social media influencers. This includes hard-to-categorize celebrities like the Kardashians and Jenners, which turned reality TV and social media fame into business and media empires.

Download the Generational Power Report (.pdf)

The Generational Power Index

The Most Followers on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube

However, it’s not only celebrities that dominate social media.

Personalities that started on one social media platform and developed massive followings include TikTok’s most-followed star Charli D’Amelio and YouTubers Whindersson Nunes Batista, Germán Garmendia, and Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg.

Politicians were also prominent influencers. Former U.S. President Barack Obama has the most followers on Twitter, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has more than 175 million followers across social media.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump would have also made the list with more than 140 million followers across social media before being banned from multiple platforms on January 8, 2021.

A Generational Look at Social Media Influence

While older generations have had to adapt to social media platforms, younger generations have grown up alongside them. As a measure of cultural importance, this gives Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z a rare leg-up on older generations.

Millennials, in particular, hold the lion’s share of spots in this top 50 list:

Generation# of Influencers in GenerationTop Influencer in Generation
Gen Z4Kylie Jenner
Millennial33Cristiano Ronaldo
Gen X10Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson
Baby Boomer3Ellen DeGeneres

The average age of the top 50 influencers was just over 37.

In our Generational Power Index (GPI), which measures the share of power generations hold in various categories, digital platforms were a key area where Millennials derived their power and influence. Overall, Baby Boomers—and to a lesser extent, Gen X—still run the show in most areas of society today.

Social Media Influence, Going Forward

As most fans and advertisers know, not all social media accounts and followings are homogenous.

Many influencers with relatively small followings have more consistent engagement, and are often able to demand high advertising fees as a result.

Conversely, most social media platforms are reckoning with a severe glut of fake accounts or bots that inflate follower counts, impacting everything from celebrities and politicians to personalities and businesses.

Regardless, social media has become a mainstay platform (or soapbox) for today’s cultural influencers. Billions of people turn to social media for news, engagement, recommendations, and entertainment, and new platforms are always on the rise.

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