COVID-19: How 3 Prior Pandemics Triggered Massive Societal Shifts

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Consortium News

Andrew Latham begins with the Antonine and Cyprian twin plagues, which ravaged the Roman Empire and gave rise to Christianity. 

Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.

Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes Covid-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life. They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic. And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.

Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way Covid-19 might bend the arc of history. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.

First, they can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview. Second, they can upend core economic structures. And, finally, they can sway power struggles among nations.

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