When reading history, I am always struck by the similarities with the present, but most of all, by the constancy of human emotion. The story of disease is intimately tied to the story of humanity and the grief, heroism, and horror run through this story as an unbroken thread. Our shared humanity does not change, but our societies do, and with each successive pandemic, we have the opportunity to learn from the past and to avoid meeting the same fate. To that end and with the lessons of the past in mind, we will turn back to the present.
The common themes that run through the history of the world’s worst pandemics are 1) the understanding that pandemics shape world history in ways that are difficult to predict, 2) the dangers of xenophobia and racism that may arise, 3) the importance of social determinants of health in shaping population outcomes, 4) the efficacy of early public health interventions 5) the prevalence of superstition and conspiracy theories, and 6) The social and economic changes that result.
Drawing on an appreciation of historical pandemics, we can predict that the current COVID-19 pandemic will indeed have a profound effect on the future of our country and our world. The geopolitical consequences of the pandemic have already begun to manifest, including strained relations between the US and China and the uncertain future of international organizations such as the WHO. However, it is difficult to anticipate what the secondary and tertiary effects of these trends will be. Further, the recession brought on by the pandemic is beginning to highlight economic inequalities that have long been present and will likely soon be exacerbated. History shows us that pandemics have the power to topple empires and lead to massive economic disruption. This should prompt us to expect the inevitability of change and to lean into these changes and try to shape them, rather than trying to fight the tides of history.
In the more immediate future, comparisons of past pandemics illustrate the infernal influence of racism, as well as the likelihood that conspiracy theories will arise. Taken together, these highlight the importance of recognizing both trends early and addressing them before they become a more serious issue. The stigmatization of Asian Americans highlights the former. Thankfully, our society has largely reacted against this and confined this belief to a prejudiced few, but among these actors, there still lurks the potential for harm that we should remain aware of given historical precedent. Additionally, just like those who imagined an international Jewish conspiracy or a German Biowarfare Attack in previous pandemics, conspiracy theories have arisen during our current one. These conspiracy theories not only undermine rational and reasonable public health measures but create the potential for physical harm to targeted groups. Videos like “Plandemic” or the vitriol surrounding the WHO and Anthony Fauci excite hatred and simultaneously smother the truth. Again, history is not sanguine about the destination that these paths lead and it is imperative that this is addressed in the light of day with compassion and education before it festers further.
Finally, and perhaps most depressingly, knowledge of historical pandemics reminds us that we have continued to repeat the mistakes of the past. History has shown that platitudes about the mildness of disease and delusions of control not only delay actions that could have saved lives but actively undermine public trust in vital institutions that are most needed during these times. Further, countless examples exist to underline the importance of preparation and of early and decisive intervention in order to save lives. A recent study projected that 36,000 lives could have been saved by an earlier intervention in the US (Glanz & Robertson, 2020), but ultimately the greatest tragedy of this is not only the thousands who died this year but that the millions who died in centuries past died in vain. But history is still being written—as we move forward through this pandemic we can continue to look to the past as an example and counterexample of the paths that we might tread, and we can redouble our efforts to ensure we are prepared for the inevitable next pandemic.
Glanz, J., & Robertson, C. (2020, May 21). Lockdown Delays Cost at Least 36,000 Lives, Data Show. Retrieved from: