For millennia, societies have faced destructive epidemics that caused a major loss of life. Although the germs that cause epidemics change over time, and people may pretend humanity has too, responses to epidemics show startling similarities across centuries. During Justinian's Plague, 40% of Constantinople's population perished. When the plague of Athens struck, it took out up to 30% of the city. And when the Black Death swept Europe in the 14th century, it ended the lives of millions, with population losses of over 50% in some areas. Even epidemics with lower mortality rates cause major disruptions, like the Spanish flu of 1918. But regardless of era or disease, people have shown many of the same responses: flee from the source of the danger, look for a scapegoat, propagate pseudoscientific cures, and question scientific authority.
In a time of crisis all bets are off; we fall into the most primal fears and patterns. And though people will do what they can to save themselves, not all behaviors are bad. Some may even better prepare humanity for future epidemics and crises.
When epidemics spread, communities often look for a scapegoat. During the Black Death, Europeans blamed Jewish communities for spreading the disease. One chronicle reported, "Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea . . . In some lands everyone died so that no one was left."
In Strasbourg, the plague took out thousands, and Christians blamed the city's Jewish population. "On Saturday - that was St. Valentine's Day - they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform," the chronicle recorded. "There were about 2,000 people." The same happened in other cities. "In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial."
Just as the Jews became scapegoats during the plague, racism against Chinese people increased during the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2020 coronavirus epidemic because they both originated in China. In New York City, during the 2020 epidemic, tourists have even avoided Chinese restaurants for fear of catching the virus despite there being no evidence to suggest people of East Asian origin are more likely to spread the disease.
These are not the only cases in modern history, however, and people of East Asian origin are not the only targets of prejudice. During the Ebola outbreak of 2015, people from West Africa were targets of xenophobia; while the LGBTQ+ community was stigamatized during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
In 1900, the bubonic plague reached the shores of America. An outbreak in San Francisco threatened to spread the disease. Doctors warned that bacteria spread the plague, but government officials undermined their efforts by questioning the science.
In California, Governor Henry Gage was skeptical about germ theory. He couldn't personally see the bacteria that caused plague, and thus denied its existence. As the plague swept through Chinatown, white San Franciscans claimed they were immune from the disease, blaming its spread on poor hygiene. But they, too, soon faced a plague epidemic, regardless of their scientific skepticism and denial.
Similarly, during Justinian's Plague in the sixth century, people turned to cures with no basis in science. Some claimed taking cold baths protected people from plague, while others sold magic amulets.
Similar pseudoscientific claims continue into the 21st. During the 2015 Zika virus epidemic a rash of conspiracy theories made their way through social media platforms. One such claim blamed one of the viruses symptoms, microcephaly, a condition which causes babies' heads and brains to develop abnormally, on MMR and DTAP vaccines in an effort for pharmaceutical companies to profit off of Zika vaccines.
Psedoscientific claims can cause adverse effects to individual and societal health. In the case of the Zika virus, doctors and scholars looking to limit the disease's reach claimed the disinformation threatened the legitimacy of healthcare institutions, potentially exposing more people to the disease as people refused to trust healthcare professionals. In other cases, the pseudoscientific claims and cures, like drinking bleach, have caused more direct health issues.
In the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire experienced a horrific plague that caused a massive drop in population. Under the Emperor Justinian, the Byzantines had expanded their borders and fought to regain parts of the western Roman Empire. But Justinian's Plague threatened to destroy the empire.
Thanks to population loss, the Byzantines could no longer defend their overseas territories. In addition to the military losses, the Byzantines also endured economic and administrative problems that decreased the empire's political power. Though the empire survived the plague, it never again achieved the reach it had under Justinian.
Justinian's Plague was not the only Ancient historical case. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta faced each other through a nearly 30-year war. During the second year of the war, however, while Sparta had laid siege on the Athens, the defending city was swept by an unknown epidemic disease, which ended a third of its entire population including the states leader, Pericles.
Some historians and scholars have attributed this unexpected loss of life to Athens's ultimate defeat and the eventual decline of Ancient Greece's cultural output. Others would not go that far, citing Athens's eventual regrowth and victories throughout the battles, but they do agree the city state did lose prestige and power due to the political aftermath of the disease.
Similarly, historians have attributed Germany's loss at the end of WWI to the emergence of the Spanish Flu epidemic in the summer of 1918. Beginning the year with a military advantage against the Triple Entente and looking to end the war before American soldiers could be deployed, the Germans launched an offensive in hopes of breaking through enemy lines and reaching Paris. They, however, lost about half a million men due to the virus, making it impossible for the army to make that final charge.
Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers often experience high mortality rates during epidemics. The famous plague doctor costume, developed in the 17th century as the bubonic plague continued to ravage Europe, attempted to protect doctors from miasmas, or disease-transmitting clouds. In modern epidemics, doctors wear personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves.
Due to the close proximity and extended time healthcare personnel spend among epidemic diseases, the high mortality rate among healthcare workers is still the norm despite technological advances.
In the fifth century BCE, Athens experienced a horrific plague that took out one in three Athenians in a single summer. As the Peloponnesian War raged, Athenians battled against an unknown enemy riskier than combat. Doctors experienced an even higher mortality rate during the plague of Athens. That year, according to Thucydides, "Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often."
But during the 2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, doctors and nurses also perished at a much greater percentage the rest of the population. The World Health Organization attributed the high mortality to fairly regular problems within epidemics, including shortages of both medical supplies and staff, improper use of equipment, and longer than recommended exposure to the disease most often due to a sense of duty to help.