Analysis| How pandemics have changed the world

Pandemics have triggered the collapse of empires, weakened pre-eminent powers and institutions, created social upheaval and brought down wars

Updated - December 03, 2021 06:31 am IST

Published - April 15, 2020 01:48 pm IST

A medical staff member reacts in the intensive care unit, where patients suffering from the coronavirus are treated at the Circolo hospital in Varese, Italy.

A medical staff member reacts in the intensive care unit, where patients suffering from the coronavirus are treated at the Circolo hospital in Varese, Italy.

Pandemics have had great influence in shaping human society and politics throughout history. From the Justinian Plague of sixth century to the Spanish flu of last century, pandemics have triggered the collapse of empires, weakened pre-eminent powers and institutions, created social upheaval and brought down wars. Here’s a look at some of the deadliest pandemics and how they influenced the course of human history.

Interactive map of confirmed coronavirus cases in India

Justinian Plague

One of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history broke out in the sixth century in Egypt and spread fast to Constantinople, which was the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The plague was named after the then Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The outbreak, which spread from Constantinople to both the West and East, had killed up to 25 to 100 million people. The plague hit Constantinople when the Byzantine Empire was at the pinnacle of its power under Justinian’s reign. The Empire had conquered much of the historically Roman Mediterranean coast, including Italy, Rome and North Africa.

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The plague would come back in different waves, finally disappearing in AD 750, after weakening the empire substantially. As the Byzantine Army failed to recruit new soldiers and ensure military supplies to battlegrounds in the wake of the spread of the illness, their provinces came under attack. The plague had also hit Constantinople hard economically, substantially weakening its war machine. By the time plague disappeared, the Empire had lost territories in Europe to the Germanic-speaking Franks and Egypt and Syria to the Arabs.

Black Death

The Black Death, or pestilence, that hit Europe and Asia in the14th century was the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history. It killed some 75 to 200 million people, according to various estimates. In early 1340s, the plague struck China, India, Syria and Egypt. It arrived in Europe in 1347, where up to 50% of the population died of the disease. The outbreak also had lasting economic and social consequences.

In the words of Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, pandemics are one of the “four horsemen” that have flattened inequality. The other three are wars, revolutions and state failures. In his book, The Great Leveller ”, Mr. Scheidel writes how the Black Death led to improved wages for serfs and agricultural labourers. “Land became more abundant relative to labour [after the death of millions of working people]. Land rents and interest rates dropped... Landowners stood to lose, and workers could hope to gain,” he writes. In parts of Europe, wages tripled as labour demand rose. And once the economy started improving, the landowning class pressured authorities to check rising labour costs. In England, the Crown passed legislation in this regard the tensions created by which would eventually lead to the Peasant Revolt of 1381. The pandemic also led to largescale Jewish persecution in Europe. Jews, blamed for spreading the illness, were burned alive in many parts of the continent.

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The most significant impact of the Black Death was perhaps the weakening of the Catholic Church. As Frank M. Snowden, a Yale professor and author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present , observed, the outbreak challenged man’s relationship to God. “How could it be that an event of this kind could occur with a wise, all-knowing and omniscient divinity?” he said in a recent interview. The Church was as helpless as any other institutions as the plague spread like wildfire across the continent, which shook the people’s faith in Church and the clergy. While Church would continue to remain as a powerful institution, it would never regain the power and influence it had enjoyed before the outbreak of the plague. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century would further weaken the Church.

Spanish Flu

Spanish Flu , which broke out during the last phase of First World War, was the deadliest pandemic of the last century that killed up to 50 million people. The flu was first recorded in Europe and then spread fast to America and Asia. India, one of the worst-hit by the pandemic, lost between 17 and 18 million people, roughly 6% of its population.

One of the major impacts of the outbreak was on the result of the war. Though the flu hit both sides, the Germans and Austrians were affected so badly that the outbreak derailed their offensives. German General Erich Ludendorff in his memoir, My War Memories, 1914-18 , wrote that the flu was one of the reasons for Germany’s defeat. Germany launched its Spring Offensive on the western front in March 1918. By June and July, the disease had weakened the German units. “Our Army had suffered. Influenza was rampant...It often left a great a greater weakness in its wake than the doctors realised,” he wrote. The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 that ended the War. But the flu would continue to ravage parts of the world for many more months.


It’s too early to say how the COVID-19 outbreak that has already infected about 2 million and killed over 1,26,000 people would change the world. But the outbreak has seen countries, both democratic and dictatorial, imposing drastic restrictions on people’s movements. The western world, the centre of the post-World War order, lies exposed to the attack of the virus. Unemployment rate in the U.S. has shot up to the levels not seen since the end of Second World War. Governments across the world, including the U.S. administration, are beefing up spending to stimulate an economy that shows signs of depression. Radical changes, good or bad, are already unfolding.

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