Skip to main content

Pandemics Change History

October 2020

As Covid-19 threatens to push millions of Americans into poverty, we can look to the past for lessons on how to deal with a pandemic.

The numbers are already grim.  Worldwide, over 27 million have contracted Covid-19; nearly 875,000 have died from it.  Public health experts caution that those numbers are certainly undercounts.  Some deaths are mistakenly attributed to underlying conditions, not Covid-19, and many people who likely had the virus were not able to get tested. At-home deaths are often excluded. Overwhelmed health care systems lack the resources to generate reliable statistics.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that government is not the enemy.

As the spread continues, with the risk of second or third waves of infection, we should recognize that this pandemic – like those of the past – will change history.  We should plan to embrace those changes that will improve our world, not worsen it.

When Athens battled its neighbors in the fifth century B.C., plagues repeatedly crippled the Greek city-state’s war effort, which ended in calamitous defeat.  Nearly a millennium later, the “Plague of Justinian” cost the Byzantine Roman Empire its provinces in Italy and North Africa.

William Blake drew a series of scenes of plague and pestilence in the 1790s. Bristol Museums
In the 1790s, William Blake drew evocative scenes of plague and pestilence. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

In the fourteenth century, the Black Death of Europe fomented massive popular upheavals. Terrified mobs annihilated hundreds of Jewish communities, a genocidal pattern that recurred with succeeding pandemics.

Charles Mann has pointed out that perhaps nine-tenths of the indigenous population of the Americas died from European pathogens in less than a generation, and that “arguably, this is the single most powerful explanatory fact in the entire history of the Americas post-1492.”

Popular violence followed cholera outbreaks in the United States in 1831-32, and plague in India between 1896 and 1900.

Recently, some television pundits have claimed that facing a pandemic is new for Americans and we haven't had to deal before with over-crowded hospitals or “social distancing,” even though those who read history know that was exactly what happened for epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, cholera, or influenza.

Read about U.S. pandemics in American Heritage

The most studied pandemic is the devastating Spanish Influenza of a century ago, at the end of World War I, which killed some 40 million.  German generals blamed the disease for the failure of their last-ditch offensive in July 1918.  

The influenza pandemic of 1918 caused a massive loss of life and wealth globally.

The flu also changed the resulting peace conference when American President Woodrow Wilson suffered a health setback which his physician attributed to influenza. The weakened Wilson offered little opposition to schemes, which he had previously criticized, to give control of the Middle East to Britain and France and to grant the Shantung Peninsula of China to Japan. They would have lasting consequences.

Economists have tried to gauge the Spanish flu’s reduction of wealth globally, while demographers have concluded that babies conceived during that pandemic later experienced higher rates of imprisonment, lower wages, and more physical disabilities.  

A recent study examined the Spanish flu’s impact on German voting in 1932 and 1933, when the Nazi Party seized power. Municipalities with higher death rates from the pandemic produced higher vote totals for extremist (that is, Nazi) candidates than can otherwise be explained.

The Spanish flu epidemic may have helped Adolph Hitler rise to power in 1932. He spoke at a Nazi rally at the Lustgarten next to the Berliner Palace on April 2 in that year. National Archives Poland.
The Spanish flu epidemic may have helped Adolph Hitler rise to power in 1932, when he received more votes in towns that had higher death rates. On April 2 he spoke at a Nazi rally next to the Berliner Palace. National Archives Poland.

Any attempt to apply these lessons to Covid-19 necessarily collides with Yogi Berra’s warning: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  We do not know how long this pandemic will continue, nor its full economic impact.  Unemployment levels at twenty percent could cast millions into poverty and breed immense social volatility.

In the immediate term, voters will judge their governments’ responses to the pandemic and cast their ballots accordingly.

Heightened xenophobia has followed earlier pandemics, and seems likely with Covid-19.  After all, except for China, the virus came from somewhere else and politicians are already launching blame-someone-else campaigns.  Some Chinese officials have even flirted with the idea of blaming the United States for the pandemic.  The temptation will be strong to seal off immigration, perhaps even the free movement of travelers.  Heightened international conflict is possible.  Globalized business could also be a casualty.    

Reduced mobility and more working-at-home would reduce demand for fuel and slow global warming.  Or perhaps social and political alienation will erode any consensus in favor of protecting the planet.

Pandemics can bring about profound long-term economic and political consequences, in addition to painful loss of life.

At a personal level, self-quarantining and sheltering in place can only sink levels of social trust.  The people who rush away when bicycle riders go by are not going to relax in public settings any time soon.  

Understanding these foreseeable macro-consequences of Covid-19, we can resolve to control them.  Blame and acrimony, rarely good public policies, will be even more corrosive.  We need to focus on ways to improve the lives of all.  We need to embrace sacrifice for the common good, a course already powerfully demonstrated by health care and other service workers.  

Voluntary actions by individuals and private entities, however, will never be enough.  The economy must be revived and jobs restored.  We need a robust public sector at local, state and federal levels, which means rejecting the anti-government rhetoric of recent years.  That destructive course has hollowed out American governments for years with tax cuts, outsourcing, and shabby treatment of public workers.  Our infrastructure has crumbled from neglect and non-funding.  

The post-pandemic world will be no place for the self-destructive creed that government is the enemy, that unchecked private greed will magically make the world better.  We know better than that, and the pandemic is teaching us that lesson again.  We must pay for the institutions we need.  Taxes, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, are “what we pay for civilized society.”

Unless we resolve to rebuild our nation together, this pandemic will wreak as much havoc on us as earlier ones inflicted on far less sophisticated worlds.

 

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate