We are all experiencing a far-reaching pandemic for the first time in many of our lives. As a result, it’s hard for many of us to see a path forward and understand the potential ramifications of what we are going through. To put it simply, life as we knew it will likely never be life as we know it again. To gain perspective for the future, what can we learn from how pandemics have shaped history in the past?
One of the first pandemics that we have records of is the Black Death Plague, which took place from 1347-1351. The Black Death was the bubonic plague, and it ravaged Europe and killed almost 25 million people. It took population levels in Europe over two centuries to return to the level that they were before 1347, and there are no records that indicate how many died in Asia and other parts of the world. One of the many societal changes in the aftermath was the decline of serfdom and an improvement in the standard of living for people who survived. Most workers had more employment opportunities than before the pandemic, social mobility increased and there was also a brief end to international wars.
One of the most notable ways pandemics have shaped history is when it comes to the study of medicine. Smallpox spread throughout the 15th and 17th centuries as Europeans traveled to new continents. For centuries, smallpox would have resurgences and harm the populations in the area. However, it became one of the most notable medical success stories of all time when the world’s first vaccine was developed in the late 1700s. Without smallpox, we would never know how long it might have taken for vaccination technology to develop.
Changes to Public Health Practices
Another way that pandemics have shaped history can be seen during the Spanish Flu or 1918 influenza pandemic. This outbreak infected 1/3 of the world’s population, or 500 million people, and it changed public health practices forever. At the time, there were very few methods in place for dealing with viral pandemics. In the aftermath, there was a great deal of research into how the pandemic spread and how public health changes could be implemented to reduce the severity of future viral outbreaks.
Ultimately, there is no way for any of us to know how COVID-19 will alter the future. However, based on the ways that pandemics have shaped history in the past, it is clear that there will be advancements that spring forth from the tragedy.
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