How pandemics have reshaped human society in history

Rearview: How pandemics have reshaped human society in history


History is not a dull, dead or a dry thing. History is a light that guides the present and prepares us for the future. Now when the word ‘pandemic‘ has invaded everyone’s life and existence, and it has pushed us to the brink of existential crisis, it’s very necessary to peep into the history of pandemics. The world has faced many pandemics and these epidemics have changed the dynamics of power, the personal relationships, the outlook towards life, society, state, economics and politics. 

When many of us are heartbroken and gloomy seeing our world is turning into a graveyard of infected persons, history is assuring us this is not the end of the world; rather, it may be a new beginning, the beginning of the unexplored sides of light that were unseen till now. Maybe this is the beginning of the shifting of power from rich to poor, from predators to farmers, from exploiters to the exploited. It’s not madness to express extreme optimism,but the history of the pandemics gives us the hope for this positive belief.

Some of the major pandemics of history and their impact

If we look at European history, many bouts of pandemics happened that rattled human existence but failed to wipe out human courage. The first of its kind of recorded plagues of Europe and Middle East Asia was the Justinian Plague that began in 541 AD and probably killed 30m to 50m people. It impacted the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. The endemic gave voice to the labourers. On hearing the demands of the wage hikes, King Justinian dictated not to fall to their avarice but the labourers did not pay heed to his order. 

The New York Times reports: “The doubling or tripling of real incomes reported on papyrus documents from the Byzantine province of Egypt leaves no doubt that his decree fell on deaf years.”

The  Black Death of 1348-49 killed one-third of England’s population and challenged the status quo. It changed England drastically. The power dynamics within the society changed as the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the entire inhabited world changed.” The oppressive English bourgeoisie, in their nascent stage, took the challenge and many new changes happened. The most important thing is the abolition of serfdom as a reduced population gave the peasants a bargaining power, while the landlords were forced to comply with the rising demands of the peasants and many have the opinion that the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt was the outcome of the Black Death.

After the plagues, the wages of the labourers were increased even the inequality of wealth decreased. The then-political and economical system got a jolt and was forced to think about science, hygiene and better ways of living. The term “quarantine” was introduced; sanitation, hygiene, etc, got immense importance. The unflinching faith in God and the church was shaken. It also revealed the fact that pandemics often exhibit a dark human nature of hatred for no concrete reason. The Jews were blamed for the disease and they were massacred, their houses were burned by the zealots. Do we see a significant similarity with what’s happening today in India?

After the Black Death, England faced 40 outbreaks of bubonic plague in a span of 300 years and these pandemics shaped the fortune, fate and social structure of England. The last outbreak of bubonic plague happened in 1665. It killed at least 100,000 Londoners. Like the present COVID-19, the last outbreak of bubonic plague, which is also called the Great Plague, affected Italy very badly. It wrecked the Italian economy and was one of the causes of Italy’s socio-economic fall. 

The Great Plague forced the British ruler to initiate some architectural and scientific endeavours. While earlier wood was mostly used to build houses, after the plague the usage of bricks and mortars for construction became common. King Charles II, built the Royal Observatory and founded the Royal Society whose earlier members were Robert Boyle, Robert Hook and Sir Isaac Newton. The pandemic along with the fire that broke out after the pandemic brought gigantic changes in the field of arts, science and literature.

The Haitian Revolution (1791to 1804) and the emergence of an independent Haiti might not have been possible if the mighty French colonisers were not affected by yellow fever and lost lives more than the indigenous Affranchis who were immune to the fever or were less affected by it. So yellow fever is as important as Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of the Haitian Revolution, in making Haiti independent.

Likewise, the outbreak of smallpox led to Edward Janner’s invention of the first vaccine in human history against any disease. The outbreak of cholera made people think of the need for hygienic drinking water.

Epidemics in Indian history:

The pandemics that affected Europe also affected India. The cholera outbreak of 1852 and 1910-11 had its origin in India. The 1910-11 cholera outbreak killed nearly 800,000 people. The much-discussed Spanish Flu had a disastrous and deadly impact on India. Around 18m people lost their lives in India alone out of the total 50m global casualty. India became the hotspot of Spanish Flu but it gave a new lease of life to the Indian freedom movement. 

The callousness displayed by the British colonial rulers in treating the infected people evoked mass resentment against them. Many freedom fighters began working at the ground level and served people irrespective of caste and religion. When this pandemic was over, this vengeance against the common enemy, the British imperialism, helped people to unite and rally against the colonial rule. Ironically, MK Gandhi, a Spanish Flu survivor himself, grasped the moment and usurped the leadership of the Indian anti-colonial struggle at that time. The resentment against the British rule overwhelmed him with support.

Laura Spinney, the author of “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 And How it Changed the World”, said: “Once the pandemic passed, emotion against the British was even higher than it had been before, and seldomly these people were far more united than they had been. And now they came together behind Gandhi. He found that suddenly he too had grass-root support that he had been lacking until then.”

So the pandemics of the past were not only takers of human breath they rammed the inscrutable societies from the hibernation of oppression and united the marginalised to demand their just dues. So cross your fingers, the people who are now homeless, the unimportant voiceless face may rise in the post-COVID-19 world and turn the table of justice in their favour. Can you see the silver linings under the dark cloud of a moonless night? Who does not know the full moon is born in the womb of dark nights!

Moumita Alam is a non-conformist. She writes about the exploitation of the marginalised. As a teacher and a poet, her pen flares up against all forms of oppression. She loves to read when not writing and she thinks critically about the socio-political aspects of life. Keen to change the society to an egalitarian one for the present have-nots.

Support People's Review

Please support us in publishing more impactful stories with a new perspective. Your support can help us sustain and take this endeavour ahead.

Payment from outside India is not accepted now as we are not registered under the FCRA