What Can the Past Teach Us About the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Article by George Goodfellow

Artwork by Naomi Milner

Despite the fact that the historical and epidemiological circumstances of pandemics differ, we can learn from three aspects common to all: the unexpected benefits; the flaws of societal response and the long-term impacts on society.

Throughout the bubonic plagues, which were omnipresent in Western Europe for three centuries[1], isolation inadvertently proved to be a fruitful source for intellectual discovery. One example from 1606 is when the Privy Council ordered the closure of playhouses. Whilst isolated, Shakespeare completed three of his great tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra[2]. In 1665 Cambridge University closed as a Great Plague preventative measure. During this time, Sir Isaac Newton developed his theories on calculus, optics and the law of gravitation[3]. These theories are central to our understanding of mathematics and physics. Another unexpected benefit can be seen in the Spanish flu epidemic which laid the foundations for public health services[4].

However, the mistakes made in trying to counter outbreaks remain key lessons for today. In the past (and arguably still a contemporary issue), there was a mentality of ‘us vs them’[5]. In the Yellow Fever epidemics in 19th century America, J. Duffy states that the elite avoided reality by relaying the argument that those “falling prey to sickness ... were strangers and the intemperate and immoral poor”[6]. A more recent example of this can be found in the response to HIV. Stigmatisation was common in the USA, often referring to the virus as the ‘gay plague’[7]. These stigmatisations are detrimental scientifically as they restrain cooperation in the search for cures[8]. In addition, we know to observe preventative control measures due to the evidence from the opposing methods used by St. Louis and Philadelphia in combatting the Spanish Flu[9]. Within two days of their first case, St. Louis closed public buildings, minimised contact on transport systems and in workplaces. In contrast, Philadelphia continued with a city-wide parade and, significantly, waited two weeks until introducing similar measures. St. Louis’ death-rate was half of Philadelphia’s[10].

Finally, history tells us that pandemics will end; this may be a social ending when we learn to cope with the fear of disease, or a medical ending when we find a cure[11]. Either way, there is often fundamental change to society. One of the first recorded epidemics, the Antonine plague of 165-180 and 251-266 AD[12], caused immense death and devastation to the Roman population – up to 2,000 deaths a day[13] – and unprecedented change to Western Europe. Historians such as A. E. R. Boak argue that this epidemic was one of the long-term factors behind the decline of the Empire[14]. In addition, this disease laid the foundations for the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire[15]. Not all pandemics are as world-changing as this, but many, such as the collapse of the English feudal system caused by the Black Death, lead to fundamental societal change[16].

In conclusion, pandemics can act as a catalyst for future innovation[17], with every occurrence evolving our future response, whilst also likely to introduce societal change. The encouraging lessons are just as significant as the cautionary ones in helping future generations respond faster and more effectively or, ideally, not having to respond at all.

Reference List:

[1] Wikipedia. “Black Death”. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death#Second_plague_pandemic last accessed 26 May 2020].

[2] Biography. “Shakespeare Wrote Three Of His Famous Tragedies During Turbulent Times.” 123 Ott, Tom. 30 Mar 2020. [https://www.biography.com/news/shakespeare-tragedies- macbeth-king-lear-antony-cleopatra-plague last accessed 26 May 2020].

[3] Wikipedia. “Isaac Newton”. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton last accessed 26 May 2020]. 

[4] SmithsonianMag. “How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Revolutionized Public Health”. Laura Spinney. 27 Sep 2017. [https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-1918-flu- pandemic-revolutionized-public-health-180965025/ last accessed 3 June 2020].

[5] YouTube. “Lessons From History: What Can Past Pandemics Teach Us About COVID-19”. Klein, Dr. Marina and Opal, Prof. Jason. 23 Apr 2020. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYTUP PzgFlw last accessed 24 May 2020].

[6] Duffy, J. “Yellow fever in the continental United States during the nineteenth century.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 44:6 (1968): 687-701. 

[7] NBC News. “LGBTQ History Month: The Early Days Of America's AIDS Crisis”. Fitzsimons, Tim. 15 Oct 2018. [https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/lgbtq-history-month-early- days-america-s-aids-crisis-n919701 last accessed 27 May 2020]. 

[8] Tasleem J. Padamsee. “The Politics of Prevention: Lessons from the Neglected History of US Hiv/Aids Policy”. J Health Polit Policy Law. 42:1 (2017): 73–122

[9] Business Insider. “How Two US Cities Responded To The 1918 Flu Pandemic Very Differently — And What We Can Learn From Those Mistakes”. Iallonardo, Marisa, 1 April 2020. [https://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-how-st-louis-vs-philadelphia-treated- 1918-flu-pandemic-2020-4?r=US&IR=T last accessed 31 May 2020].  

[10] Smith, Richard. “Social measures may control pandemic flu better than drugs and vaccines.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) 334:7608 (2007): 1341.

[11] NY Times. “How Pandemics End”. Kolata, Gina. 10 May 2020. [https://www.nytimes.com/2020 /05/10/health/coronavirus-plague-pandemic-history.html last accessed 29 May 2020]

[12] Ancient History Encyclopaedia. “Antonine Plague”. Horgan, J. 02 May 2019. [https://www.ancient.eu/Antonine_Plague/ last accessed 25 May 2020]. 

[13] Wikipedia. “Antonine Plague”. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonine_Plague last accessed 25 May 2020].

[14] Boak, A.E.R. “Manpower Shortage And The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West.” Westport: Greenwood Pr., 1974

[15] Yeomans, Sarah. “The Antonine plague and the spread of Christianity”. Biblical Archaeology Review. 43:2 (2017): 22-24 and 66.

[16] History. “Pandemics That Changed History”. 30 Jan 2020. [https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/pandemics-timeline last accessed 2 June 2020].

[17] Forbes. “Why Coronavirus Will Stimulate Innovation”. Mehta, Kumar. 09 Mar 2020. [https://www.forbes.com/sites/kmehta/2020/03/09/why-coronavirus-will-stimulate- innovation/#28ba52f42283 last accessed 28 May 2020].