How Pandemics Shape History

Adam De Salle
9 min readMar 24, 2021

Roughly a year on from the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and most of us are still in lockdowns, living masked up and 6 feet apart. Once the pandemic is over (if it ever does end, this is feeling ever less likely), it is fair to say, the world will never be the same. Every pandemic in history from the plague to Tuberculosis to HIV has changed our world and made history, not always for the better. Diseases alter, shape, and reshape the course of social and political history. That can be taken literally — Typhoid allegedly killed Alexander the Great, the plague seemed to catalyse the end of the Byzantine Empire, and measles may have done the same to the Romans. But pandemics also kick start everything from sexist morality laws to public health infrastructure to government surveillance. Therefore, one could argue, that diseases have created the modern state we live in.

Take, for example, the 2nd Plague Pandemic (a.k.a. The Black Death). Beginning roughly in the 14th Century, the Plague was on again, off again for approximately 500 years, killing 50% of Europe. It is fair to say that societies were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle such a brutal disease. The cramped conditions of new cities and international trade meant that disease spread extremely easily, all the while physicians chalked it up to ‘Miasma’ — bad air. Of course, we now know that bubonic plague was spread by fleas which got onto rats and then onto us. Economies were destroyed, social orders were overthrown, and the world was forever changed.

Frank Snowden

As scholar Frank Snowden writes in his famous ‘Epidemics and Society’, “Every activity of normal life ceased amidst shuttered shops, unemployment and hunger.” Though Snowden was describing Medieval Europe, it is tragic that this description could just as easily be about our present times. 50% of the population of Naples was wiped out by the Plague of 1656, and Snowden notes that after awhile, there weren’t enough people left to bury the dead. Throughout Europe, suspected sinners (typically Jews, foreigners, other non-conformists or religious dissenters, and sex workers) were banished, or worse, murdered by scared, hysterical people, who thought they brought plague onto the…

Adam De Salle

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.