This is not the first time the world has had to cope with global pandemic nor may it be the last.  Over the last two millennia major outbreaks of plague have rocked Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the most severe of which in the fourteenth century has left enduring testimonies of how epidemic disease is not simply a medical but also a social and political phenomenon.  Epidemics and the panic they bring magnify a society's existing weaknesses and strengths.  The global pandemic of the fourteenth century had all sorts of local impact.  It exposed the vulnerability of the rice-based labor-intensive Egyptian economy, while the North African scholar Ibn Khaldun saw it as the culmination of centuries of political decadence, the beginning of a new cycle of civilization.  In England, governments fixed wages and froze the job market, a reaction against the growing social mobility of medieval peasants.  And in many parts of Europe, disease narratives developed that placed blame on the Jews, the Mongols and more broadly, the "East."  We are seeing much of this today in the way healthcare systems have been exposed and political structures revealed as cumbersome in the organization of effective response; we are also seeing tendencies toward blame.  At the same time, the heroic and heartfelt actions of the majority of our community, in the US and globally provides support for centuries-old stories of resistance and succor in times of epidemic threat: friends and neighbors that tended to the spiritual and physical welfare of those around them; scientists who examined causes ranging from individual physiologies to environmental change.  The final testimony of these historic epidemics is resilience and resurgence.  And so it will be again.  

Jehangir Malegram

Associate Professor of History

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