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Opinion
Stephen Mihm

How Pandemics Change the Course of History

A look at centuries of scourges shows the unpredictable impacts that often take years to reveal themselves.

Outbreaks happen fast. And then they linger for much longer.

Outbreaks happen fast. And then they linger for much longer.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

When Covid-19 first arrived last year, everyone’s go-to historical parallel was the 1918 influenza pandemic. Precisely because it was so fleeting, it’s hard to find evidence that it caused a sweeping reorientation of everyday life. In its wake, most people simply forgot what happened. Other global pathogens stayed longer and had much bigger impacts on society.

Consider what followed the double-shot of diseases that hit the Roman Empire: the Antonine Plague, which raged between the years of 165 and 180, and the Cyprian Plague, which hit in 249 and lingered into the 260s. At least one or both of these are believed to be ancestors of modern-day variola virus, better known as smallpox.