Pandemics have always been a constant occurrence in human history. The list of plagues that have decimated large swathes of the population in various places throughout history is long. Three examples: the Black Death of 1346-1353 killed between 25 and 200 million people, being the deadliest pandemic ever recorded; the Naples plague of 1656 decimated half of the estimated 450,000 inhabitants of the city; and the London plague of 1665 wiped out 100,000 people in over a year. 

In his transcendental work, History of The Peloponnesian War, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote a poignant first-hand account of the plague that struck Athens between 430 and 426 BC. The epidemic wiped out between 75,000 and 100,000 people. Unlike earlier writers who attributed to the Gods and the Oracle the events that befell humans, Thucydides interpreted world events from a cause-effect perspective. Having contracted the disease and survived, Thucydides enumerated in painstaking detail the horrific symptoms of the disease, identified its likely origins in northern Africa, narrated how the plague spread across the Athenian peninsula and described the efforts of doctors to deal with it and how many of them died as a result. 

Equally significant was Thucydides’ account of the consequences the epidemic had on Athenian society, economy, and politics. As if having survived the epidemic empowered them to live to the fullest, people began challenging society and defying the law; they lost the fear of the Gods, and self-indulgence became more important than honor. The moral of the troops was low; several soldiers refused to go to war. As a result, Athens lost the war against Sparta, signaling its decline as a superpower in the ancient world. 

In the ancient world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early modern world, epidemics spread following commercial routes. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, globalization and an interconnected world eased global contagion. Although a handful of countries reacted swiftly and resourcefully against COVID-19, most were caught by surprise. Considering it an immoral zero-sum trade-off, government decision-makers struggled to address the conundrum of saving lives while keeping the economy running. Costly policy mistakes were made. Lockdowns were imposed on healthy and infected people alike. The supply of much-needed medical equipment was erratic. True, lives were saved, but key sectors of the economy were destroyed. Recovery efforts will haunt us for years to come. 

One thing is certain: pandemics are part of human history and are bound to resurface, in different places with different symptoms, every number of years. Hopefully, this time we will learn from the recent COVID-19 crisis and be better equipped to face the next one to come.

This article originally appeared in ISM's 2020 Summer Newsletter.

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