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History Reveals How Societies Survive Plagues

History Reveals How Societies Survive Plagues 

Nancy Shute

This isn’t the first time in history that societies have been racked by social unrest while in the grip of a pandemic.

That may be scant comfort, but as Bruce Bower explains in this issue (Page 24), impacts of a pandemic often reach beyond the toll of illness and death. In the mid-200s, the Plague of Cyprian may have helped to irreversibly weaken the Roman Empire. In the 19th century, soldiers sent to Haiti by Napoleon Bonaparte to quash rebellion succumbed to yellow fever, leading to Haitian independence and Napoleon’s sale of the territory of Louisiana to the United States.

Yellow fever’s grip on Louisiana perpetuated racial inequity, Bower reports. White people who survived gained special privileges once they were immune to the mosquito-borne disease. Enslaved people, however, did not; surviving yellow fever just made them more valuable as workers.

The coronavirus pandemic has tracked long-standing racial fault lines in the United States, with African Americans more apt to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19 (SN Online: 4/10/20). Black people often work in jobs where they are more likely to be exposed, more often have other health conditions that put them at greater risk, and have less access to care.

As protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police swept the nation, physicians’ groups including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics called for the country to address the violence and inequities of racism as a public health crisis. “Racism is detrimental to health in all its forms,” the AMA statement read.

Scientists warned for decades of the risk of a pandemic, but societies worldwide failed to prepare. The economic, social and human costs of racism have been clear for even longer, yet remain a heavy burden.

But those failures don’t have to be our future. History offers many examples of societies adapting and evolving in response to the assaults of pandemics, Bower writes. In these awful times, we also have opportunities to change history for the good.

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