What can we learn from pandemics of the past? We asked a historian.

Coronavirus

“The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562. Photo: Public Domain

HONOLULU (KHON) — Among other things, the current coronavirus pandemic has caused a surge of interest in plagues and pandemics of the past. The 1995 movie “Outbreak” has quickly become one of the most popular movies on Netflix, and the titles of trending videos on YouTube read like a mix between a Boredom How-To Guide and a syllabus for Epidemiology 101.

Such curiosity has naturally led to Venn diagramming the coronavirus and other recent pandemics: Ebola in 2014, H1N1 in 2009, and SARS in 2002. Yet widespread disease is nothing new. Plagues and pandemics have had profound effects on human populations throughout history, triggering societal upheaval, shaping migration patterns, and fundamentally altering social development.

So what can these episodes from history teach us?

To answer this question, we reached out to Patrick Wyman, PhD in History and host of the podcasts “Tides of History” and “The Fall of Rome.”

KHON2: What are some of the most notorious outbreaks in history. How did they happen, and how did they affect the countries or societies in which they occurred? 

Patrick Wyman: The four big ones: a) Justinianic Plague of the 6th century AD, part of the complex of things that helped bring the Roman Empire to an end, caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis; b) the Black Death of the 14th century, which killed about half the population of Europe, also caused by yersinia pestis; c) the New World pandemics — a whole variety of things — that gutted the indigenous populations of the Americas in wave after wave of a whole variety of diseases following the arrival of Europeans after Columbus; and d) the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, which killed more people than the First World War (H1N1 strain of influenza).

In terms of their effects, well, they killed a lot of people — millions of them. Pandemics are generally economic catastrophes, though their precise effect in the short and long term varies depending on precisely whom they kill and the prevailing conditions at the time. The Justinianic Plague was the capstone on a long economic downturn that continued for centuries afterward; the Black Death came at the end of a long period of contraction, plunged the economy down deeper, but in the long run raised wages and improved the quality of life especially for common people.

How did the governing forces at the time deal with the outbreaks then? What actions did they take or not take that either made things better or worse? 

It’s hard to say with the Justinianic Plague, but with the Black Death and the Spanish Flu, responses varied. Quarantines were common, especially after the initial wave of the Black Death, and became part of the standard response. No single outbreak was ever as bad again as the first. With the Spanish Flu, we have really good data that tells us how different things helped. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on social distancing and shutting down events right now — we know that it helps, and we can prove it with a lot of evidence.

Were any of those situations particularly comparable with the current coronavirus pandemic?

The Spanish Flu is probably the closest analogue. The Spanish Flu was also a respiratory virus (rather than a bacterium like y. pestis), it was dangerous but not incredibly lethal (like the coronavirus), and it was the product of a similarly globalized world. The flu spread so far and so fast because of the First World War moving huge numbers of people and animals from place to place at rapid speeds, via railway and steamship. That sounds a lot like our world.

What has changed about how we (individuals, societies, governing bodies) deal with outbreaks, and what hasn’t?

Well, we have germ theory, which helps us understand precisely how diseases spread, and that’s a major help. We also have a lot more information in real time than our predecessors, which helps us formulate real-time responses, though that might be offset by the increasing speed of movement around the world. Instead of it taking a week to cross the Atlantic, you’re there in hours. You win some, you lose some.

Is there anything we can learn from these historical examples that can be applied to the current coronavirus situation?

A few. Social distancing works really well; it’s not a cure-all, but avoiding mass gatherings and keeping your distance really does help to reduce rates of infection. The economic consequences are probably going to be serious and long-lasting, whatever the death rates.

Patrick Wyman is a PhD in history and the host of “Tides of History” and “The Fall of Rome” podcasts.

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