It’s still too early to know how profoundly coronavirus will change our societies, but it’s clear we’ll be living with the shockwaves for years to come.
This pandemic will alter the course of history in ways we can’t predict – just like those before it.
Along with wars, economic changes and technological developments, outbreaks of infectious disease have radically shaped the world we live in today.
Perhaps the most infamous is the bubonic plague, which ravaged Europe for centuries and resulted in the Black Death, the global pandemic that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s.
But lesser-known epidemics and pandemics have also left an indelible mark. Here are four.
The Great Plague of Athens
The first documented epidemic in history unfolded right back in the time of the Ancient Greeks.
In 430BC, a deadly disease swept through ancient Athens, a great city at its peak – and at war with the Spartans.
In the three years that followed, about a third of the population – as many as 100,000 people – were killed, including the Athenian leader Pericles.
The outbreak led to a breakdown of society, and arguably played a role in the eventual defeat of Athens.
We still don’t know what the devastating disease was: Over the years typhus, typhoid, malaria, smallpox, bubonic plague and Ebola have all been offered as the culprit.
“I think the best argument has been made for smallpox,” Jo Hays, professor emeritus of history, tells ABC RN’s Rear Vision.
Athens never returned to its former glory and power.
Smallpox and the settlement of the Americas
Smallpox changed the future of the Americas after the arrival of Christopher Columbus at the end of the 15th century.
“Columbus landed on the island Hispaniola, and there was a native population of Arawaks,” historian Frank Snowdon says.
“Columbus imagined that he was going to subjugate the Arawak and reduce them to slavery, but this proved impossible because they died.
“Within a generation the population had been reduced to 10,000 out of several million, and this was exclusively due to the effect of smallpox.”
In the years that followed Columbus’s voyage, many species of plants and animals crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, in what is sometimes known as the “Columbian exchange”.
Diseases – many apparently new to the “virgin soil of the Americas”, like smallpox, measles and plague – were part of that exchange, says Professor Hays.
He says these diseases collectively resulted in the deaths of around 90 per cent of people in the Americas, although there’s argument around just what the populations were.
“Some people have said (the population) might have been as much as 100 million, others say, no, it’s probably only more like 10,” he says.
“But what is certainly true is that by the end of the century, by 1600, if the population of the Americas was 100 million, it was now 10 million. And if the population was 10 million, it was now one million.”
Unable to enslave the Arawak, Europeans instead turned to Africa.
Professor Snowdon says this fuelled the growth of the African slave trade.
“Because Africans possessed many of the same disease history that Europeans had, they possessed herd immunity and they were suitable for being enslaved,” he says.
“So this New World slavery is also a legacy of this lack of immunity or possessing immunity. It was a decisive factor in the whole history of the settlement of the Americas and also Australia and New Zealand.”
Yellow fever, a slave rebellion and the rise of the US
It wasn’t just Columbus whose colonial plans were stopped by infectious disease.
Napoleon Bonaparte lost control of the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, because of an epidemic.
In 1789, the year the French Revolution began, the French colony was the richest in the world, its wealth created by the labour of half a million black slaves producing sugar, indigo, cotton, cocoa, coffee and tobacco.
In August 1791, the slaves began a revolt to overthrow the French.
Professor Snowdon says it was “the biggest slave rebellion in human history”.
“Something like 50,000 soldiers and sailors were sent to Saint-Domingue to crush the rebellion,” he says.
But unlike the slaves, the soldiers had no herd immunity to yellow fever, which was rife in the region.
By the summer, 80 per cent of the soldiers had died, and the other 20 per cent were too sick to fight.
“Napoleon accepted this defeat, withdrew the attempt to restore slavery, and so we have the beginning of decolonisation,” Professor Snowdon says.
“In addition, Napoleon realised that he didn’t have a base for his ambitions in North America, and so he sold, to Thomas Jefferson, Louisiana.
“This was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that doubled the size of the United States.
“So we see yellow fever playing a huge geopolitical role in reorienting the balance of power among the great powers of the period, and we see the emergence of the United States as a very significant regional power to eventually becoming a global power.”
Cholera and class conflict
Cholera first appeared in the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution.
It was a time of mass urbanisation, Professor Snowdon says, and with that came overcrowded housing, terrible hygiene practices, and the threat of food and water being contaminated.
“Cholera gave rise to enormous social tensions because it was clearly a class disease. People in the slums of Naples or Paris or London could see that with their own eyes,” he says.
“The people who were middle class in their midst seemed to have this strange immunity: Doctors, priests, the officials of local government.
“That’s because doctors and priests and officials didn’t actually move into the tenements. They didn’t take their meals there. They didn’t drink the water there.”
But the poor thought there was a more sinister reason for it: That the disease was a deliberate attempt to rid cities of poverty.
“So one sees riots in times of cholera and enormous tensions,” Professor Snowdon says.
The tension was reciprocated by the wealthier classes.
They already feared the working class politically, and now feared them as bringers of disease.
“I believe that this is a feature – not the cause, but a feature – in the violence of the repression of social uprisings in the 19th century,” Professor Snowdon says.
He says in Paris – “the most rebellious city in Europe at the time” – the 1848 revolution was met with extraordinary aggression.
“And this was true as well after the Paris Commune (in 1871), which was extraordinarily repressive and violent and bloody,” he says.
Professor Snowdon says cholera “greatly sharpened” the fears and resentments on both sides of the barricades.
“So yes, cholera was a disease of the Industrial Revolution that thrived on social tension and helped also to create it.”
What will the future hold?
The 1918 Spanish flu outbreak was not only the worst pandemic of the 20th century, but also the deadliest in history, killing some 50 million people worldwide.
But we now know that isn’t the case.
Professor Hays says the modern world is also far more complicated than it ever has been; our populations are more urban and more mobile, so disease can spread faster.
We’re also living longer, and are more vulnerable as we age.
“I think also we continue to rely on what are ultimately political choices where if we are going to combat a disease, we have to decide what is worth spending money on, how and when we are going to spend it,” Professor Hays says.
How history will record coronavirus is yet to be determined, but experts agree there will be lasting consequences.
“It does look as though our world will never be the same. Quite likely the disease will be lasting and endemic and we will have to live with it for a long time,” Professor Snowdon says.
“I’m not talking about the apocalypse, I’m talking about living together with a dangerous pathogen … that we don’t seem to have a clear way of eradicating.”
He predicts that the way we live and work will change: Handshakes will become a thing of the past, we’ll rely less on public transport, our economies will be transformed, the entertainment world will take on a new form.
“I suspect also that people will learn the lesson at last that our healthcare systems … have to be built in such a way that health care is available to everyone, because that’s part of the story of the spread of coronavirus, is so many people not having access to health care,” he says.
“I think we are going to be fundamentally transformed as a result of this.”