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History of Pandemics

In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. We are neither the first nor the last to face such a daunting challenge. Through the ages, humankind has endured pandemics, including three waves of pandemics caused by the Black Death (14th through 19th centuries), which took the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

One of the earliest known images from the era of the Black Death depicts mourners carrying coffins containing its victims. From a book by Gilles le Muisis, Abbot of St. Martin, Tournai, Belgium (1349). Source: UIG via Getty Images

It took centuries for scientists to identify the plague’s cause as a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) found in fleas carried by rodents, yet even before this discovery, many countries attempted to slow the progress of the disease by enforcing quarantines—sheltering in place just as we are called to do today.

History shows us that factors including international trade, war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the plague’s impact. Past pandemics triggered widespread social and economic upheaval. When people allowed fear or anger to dictate their actions; superstition, persecution and social injustice were the result.

Scientists and government leaders are looking at the history of pandemics to put our present challenge with the coronavirus into context. They are drawing valuable insights from historical records and data for the development of new and more effective tests, vaccines, disaster response strategies, and health and human services policies and programs to support the world through the current crisis.

History also shows us that we must work together to overcome the coronavirus, and we must all remember to direct feelings of fear and anger at the disease, not the person standing next to us. Our legacy will one day show whether or not we learned from history.

Gain a broader perspective on COVID-19:



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