What the History of Pandemics Can Teach Us About Resilience

And now, the United States faces a pandemic that has disproportionately sickened and killed Americans of color, who are overrepresented in the essential work force yet less likely to have access to medical care. As federal and state governments manage the vaccine rollout, access to testing and treatment, and economic relief packages, it’s crucial to learn from the past and target policies specifically at reducing the racial and economic inequalities that made the pandemic so devastating in the first place.

“If the effects of racism and effects of xenophobia were less systemic within our society, we would likely see fewer deaths as a result of Covid-19,” Mr. White said. “Bigotry is fundamentally bad for public health.”

Even as pandemics have often re-entrenched old prejudices and forms of marginalization, they’ve also often given rise to something new, especially when it comes to art, culture and entertainment.

Ancient Rome, for example, was tormented by epidemics, with one occurring every 15 to 20 years for portions of the fourth, third and second centuries B.C., said Caroline Wazer, a writer and editor who completed a dissertation on Roman public health. At the time, the primary public-health response was a religious one, with Romans experimenting with new rites and even new gods in an attempt to stop the spread of illness. In one case, Ms. Wazer said, with an epidemic dragging on for three years and the public increasingly agitated, the Senate adopted a strange, new ritual from northern Italy: “they bring in actors to perform onstage.” According to the Roman historian Livy, “this is how the Romans get theater,” Ms. Wazer said, though that fact has been debated.

A spiritual response to disease brought cultural change to 14th-century England, too. Recalling the mass graves of the Black Death, Britons feared dying without a Christian burial and spending eternity in purgatory, Mr. Bailey said. So they began to form guilds, small religious groups that essentially functioned as “burial insurance clubs,” raising money to give members the proper treatment after death.

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