NEJM 2020 – History in a Crisis — Lessons for Covid-19
History in a Crisis — Lessons for Covid-19
List of authors.
March 12, 2020
Writing in the heady days of new antibiotics and immunizations, esteemed microbiologists Macfarlane Burnet and David White predicted in 1972 that “the most likely forecast about the future of infectious diseases is that it will be very dull.”1 They acknowledged that there was always a risk of “some wholly unexpected emergence of a new and dangerous infectious disease, but nothing of the sort has marked the last fifty years.” Epidemics, it seemed, were of interest only to historians.
Times have changed. From herpes and legionnaires’ disease in the 1970s, to AIDS, Ebola, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and now Covid-19, contagious diseases continue to threaten and disrupt human populations. Historians, who never lost interest in epidemics, have much to offer.
When asked to explain past events, historians are quick to assert the importance of context. If you want to understand how or why something happened, you must attend to local circumstances. But there is something about epidemics that has elicited an opposite reaction from historians: a desire to identify universal truths about how societies respond to contagious disease.