Categories: History

Two Ways A Pandemic Can End, According To Historians

The COVID-19 pandemic would likely end "socially before it ends medically."

  • John Hopkins medical historian Dr. Jeremy Greene said the novel COVID-19 pandemic can end in two ways: medical and social.
  • One possibility is that the novel coronavirus pandemic could end “socially” before it ends medically, Yale historian Naomi Rogers said.
  • Greene stressed that an end to this pandemic can happen not because coronavirus is gone but after people get tired of fear and finally learn to live with the novel disease.

Some historians are now saying that the novel coronavirus could end in two ways, either the end will occur “medically” or “socially”. However, other historians, such as Dr. Jeremy Greene of John Hopkins, believe that COVID-19 will end when people start to get tired of being afraid of the virus and learn to live with the disease.

While the end will be “messy”, University of Exeter historian Dora Vargha said ending the virus through medical process may take time and that people will resort to get on with their lives by ending the “epidemic of fear” of the virus.

“I think there is this sort of social psychological issue of exhaustion and frustration. We may be in a moment when people are just saying: ‘That’s enough. I deserve to be able to return to my regular life.'” Yale historian Naomi Rogers said.

Rogers said it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic would likely end “socially before it ends medically”. The public, she said, will grow tired and frustrated with the restrictions and declare the virus is over – even as the virus continues to claim lives and before a vaccine is discovered.

The historians also listed proofs from past pandemics showing how viruses or diseases did not go away, but simply evolved.

Black Death pandemic

The black death pandemic happened from the 6th to 20th century in three instances. They were called the “three great waves of plague”, which devastated millions of lives in Europe and China.

“The three great plagues” were: 1) the Plague of Justinian, also known as Black Death/Bubonic Plague in the 6th century; 2) the medieval epidemic in the 14th century; and 3) a pandemic that struck during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The three plagues were caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis which were transmitted through fleas that fed on infected animals such as wild rodents. The incubation period of the Black Death took two to seven days after the infection. Signs and symptoms included painful and swollen lymph nodes, fever, headache, chills, fatigue, abdominal pain, pneumonia, cough, and chest pain.

The Bubonic plague killed 60% of the population in Europe. The virus was transmitted from an infected person to another through respiratory droplets.

The second great plague, the “medieval pandemic,” occurred in China back in 1331. The illness broke out during an ongoing civil war and it killed half of the Chinese population. Eventually, the virus spread to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East between 1347 and 1351. According to records, the plague killed about a third of the people in Europe while half of the population in Siena, Italy also died from the said plague.

People at the time, wrote historian Giovanni Boccaccio, continued to “drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, and gratify all of one’s cravings when the opportunity emerged, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke”.

The medieval pandemic ended, the historian said, but the plagues evolved and reoccurred.

The third great plague in the late 19th century to 20th century was considered as the one of the worst outbreaks in China. It happened in 1855 and spread worldwide, killing more than 12 million of the population in India alone. Bombay health officials decided to burn the infected neighborhood to get rid of the rat plague.

It was not clear what made the Black Death plague die down, historians said. However, each epidemic amplified “the fear” that came with the next pandemic outbreak.


1918’s Spanish flu pandemic also required people to exercise self quarantine and social distancing. According to history, the disease killed 50-million to 100 million people worldwide.

“The virus demonstrated the inferiority of human inventions in the destruction of human life,” explained Dr. Victor Vaughan of Camp Deven in Boston.

After claiming numerous lives across the world, the flu faded away but it evolved and occurred into a “variant” kind of flu every year. The flu ended, socially as there is still no available vaccine or cure until now.

“Epidemic of Fear”

Dr. Susan Murray of Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin said that the epidemic of fear can happen even without an epidemic of disease. She recalled the Ebola outbreak in West Africa which killed 11,000 people. According to Dr Murray, there were no incidents of Ebola in Ireland but “public fear” among Irish people was overwhelming.

“If we are not prepared to fight fear and ignorance as actively and as thoughtfully as we fight any other virus, it is possible that fear can do terrible harm to vulnerable people, even in places that never see a single case of infection during an outbreak,” the doctor said.

Murray also added that a “fear epidemic” can bring other negative consequences when issues on race and privilege are involved.

How will Coronavirus end?

Like what the historians cited from past pandemics, COVID-19 will end through a social process, when people get tired of staying at home and stop being afraid of the virus.

Rogers said that it is happening now since some states in the United States, China, and other European countries are starting to relax restrictions.

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