COVID-19 marks a turning point, sixteen months of pandemic have been disorienting and arduous, but throughout human history, epidemics have marked the chronology of humanity for centuries, sowing panic and killing millions of people, regardless of whether the culprit was plague, smallpox or flu. And when infections diminish, their footprints on society can remain, some short-lived and some lasting.
A new “normal” is emerging in the scientific world, of course, COVID-19 is still with us, especially outside the minority of countries now enjoying the fruits of widespread vaccination. However, as the pandemic enters a different phase, we wonder how research might change, how scientists are navigating these waters, and which directions they are choosing to navigate.
While the past may not portend the future, the history of the outbreak illuminates us as to how the change from COVID-19 will unfold. “Historians often say that what an epidemic will do is expose the fault lines below”says Erica Charters, a medical historian at the University of Oxford who is studying how epidemics end.
But how we respond is up to us. When we ask “How does the epidemic change society?”, this suggests that there is something in the disease that will guide us. But the disease doesn’t have a course of action like humans.
Past epidemics have prompted scientists and doctors to reconsider everything from their understanding of the disease to their ways of communicating. One of the most studied, the bubonic plague, crossed Europe in the late 1340s like the Black Death, then sporadically affected parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa over the next 500 years.
Caused by bacteria transmitted through infected flea bites, the hallmarks of the plague included grotesque swollen lymph nodes, seizures, and organ failure. Cities were powerless against its spread. In 1630 almost half of the Milanese population perished. In Marseille, France, in 1720, 60,000 died.