Pandemics & History

The entrance of pandemics on the world stage is as old as the Greek language itself. Communicable diseases existed during humankind's hunter-gatherer days, but the shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created permanent communities. This was the advent of pandemics.

Much of our world history is based on conquest, war, revolution, political affiliation, the entrenchment of racial and economic discrimination, and religion. Pandemics play the role of an ally or a foe, which changes the course of history.

Many a time, it favours the fall of civilisations such as the 430 BCE pandemic in Athens which allowed the Spartans to steamroll through the city state of Athens. This led to the end of the Greek golden age. Or the extermination of the Inca and Aztec populations due to the smallpox epidemic during the Spanish Inquisition.

On the other hand, it has also been a saviour, a pall-bearer of peace and freedom, an ally to revolution. Chattel slavery and the end of colonisation in the New World was only possible due to the lack of immunity of the Europeans. When Napolean Bonaparte sent an armada to reinstate slavery in Haiti, his army was defeated by a slave revolution due to yellow fever. This also led to the Haitian revolution and Louisiana Purchase of 1803.


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André Mazet tending people suffering from yellow fever in the streets of Barcelona.
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Hence, epidemics have had contradicting positions in world history and have been a mediating force in the rise and fall of civilisations and social structures. But an interesting feature about pandemics is their role in politics and religion.

Diseases have led to the marriage between state and religion, which has survived from the times of the Late Roman and Byzantine empires to today's superpowers. Even if they do not have a state religion, they are influenced by it. For example, in Britain during 444 CE the Cyprian Plague became a cause of obstruction in the fight of the Britons against the Picts, leading to the conquest of the British Isles by the Saxon Kings.

In 541 CE due to the Justinian Plague, Emperor Justinian was unable to unite the Roman empire, which led to a rapid spread of Christianity. During such periods of turbulence, there is not only a resurgence of faith but a need for the reason of these omens, which modern science calls epidemics. This can be seen in the form of myths and folklore, as well as religious beliefs, during the 11th century to the 19th-century.

When Leprosy struck during the Middle Ages, it was considered a punishment by the gods, while folklore of the undead such as Lugat and Moroi began in Eastern Europe. From the 19th century onwards there was an increase in the number of victims due to epidemics. This brought forth two important points which were sanitation and political oppression. The Paris Commune was an instance of radical socialist movements.


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The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome.
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While pandemics have taken many lives over time, an acute sense of optimism can be felt. Due to the presence of pandemics, we as humans have developed ways to prevent the spread of these diseases. There have been advances in medicine, which not only includes finding cures or vaccines but also creating specialised branches of medicine, the discovery of new viruses and bacterium, medical institutions such as modern hospitals and Pharmaceuticals began coming into existence.

Florence Nightingale was a revolutionary in the field of nursing, and her example was used for treating patients with Spanish Flu. Modern times have benefitted from the failures of the past - from social campaigns to raise funds in the fight against AIDS during the 1980s, to organisations which send doctors to treat patients such as Doctors Without Borders during the Ebola Crisis in Africa.


Vaccination during the epidemic of small-pox. 1921 Dawaimeh village, Palestine.
Vaccination during the epidemic of small-pox. 1921 Dawaimeh village, Palestine.
(Image from, under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.)


Now, yet again we are faced with a similar challenge in the form of COVID-19, with many countries trying to combat the outbreak on a war footing. As the pandemic sweeps across the world, cities going on full lock down, travel restrictions and social isolation have all become the norm. COVID-19 has broadened the scope of zoonotic diseases as a branch of study, caused heavy setbacks upon the world economy and has many of us rethinking our food habits too.

Hence, this has and will further change our lives and our world in multiple ways. In a sense, perhaps we owe today's achievements, not to the wisdom of our ancestors, but the existence of their foe - pandemics.

I suppose Martin Luther King was correct... “We are not makers of history. We are made by History."


Written by Aaryan Sridharan, Grade XII, Shiv Nadar School Gurugram

Mar 19, 2020 by Shiv Nadar School