How Pandemics Shape Society

It’s safe to say that the coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot. Since the Prime Minister announced lockdown in March, life has changed dramatically. Many people are starting to wonder what impact coronavirus will have on society has a whole not only right here and now but into the future. Looking back on pandemics of the past, it’s interesting to see how a pandemic can change society, and the world, and what legacy it leaves.

Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague is arguably the most infamous pandemic outbreak of all time. The multi-century pandemic was believed to have originated in China in 1334, reaching Europe through Sicilian ports in the late 1340’s. The disease existed in two varieties, one contracted by insect bites and the other airborne. Victims rarely lasted over four days between initial infection and death. The plague killed without exception but particularly in cities and among groups of people who were in close contact with the sick.

One of the biggest changes this pandemic created was the improvement in conditions for the working classes. The population had been considerably decreased by the pandemic and many survivors deserted the countryside and moved to the city. Working-class people claimed deceased family’s livestock, tools and possessions. The taste of better living conditions for the poor would never be forgotten. Due to the decrease in population, the pandemic also created more work for peasants who were still alive to work the land and they found they could demand higher wages. An interesting change that the pandemic caused was people’s scepticism towards religion. With the unforgiving nature of the plague, many people realised that God could do nothing to stop the spread of the disease. Priests died and church services ceased which grew peoples disillusion in God.


Smallpox is in fact the longest-running pandemic of all time. It is believed to have originated in Africa from rodents and from there it spread to China and India. The first recorded epidemic of Smallpox was during the Egyptian-Hittite War in 1350 B.C. Around 2000 years later, it plagued Europe and spread across the continents from the fifth century until the nineteenth century. The initial symptoms of smallpox included high fever, fatigue and a headache. Once smallpox was contracted, there was an approximate 30% chance of death.

It’s hard to get a measure of how Smallpox changed each society who fell victim to it, however, it is known that Smallpox had a major role in shaping the way western civilisation prospered and grew during the middle ages and into modern times. Between the tenth century and until the eighteenth century, Smallpox accounted for over 400,000 deaths every year. Smallpox is also the first and only human disease to be eradicated globally. In 1796, British doctor Edward Jenner discovered that catching Cowpox, a similar far less dangerous virus, made it rare to catch Smallpox. Jenner injected a patient with Cowpox and later inoculated him with Smallpox and found that the boy did not get sick. Jenner had invented the first vaccination. Later testing proved conclusively that the Cowpox virus was able to build immunity against Smallpox.

The Spanish Flu

The 1918 Influenza pandemic is the most severe pandemic in recent history. There is not a universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, however, it was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. It was first discovered in US military personnel in the Spring of 1918. Estimated to have infected 500 million people, the first wave that hit at the start of 1918 actually proved to be mild. Those who caught the virus experienced typical flu symptoms. However, the second wave of influenza returned with a vengeance in the autumn of the same year. Victims typically died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate.

There were many aspects of society that were shaped by the Spanish Flu. In the short term, there was a jump in life expectancy. The population was purged due to the pandemic killing the weaker members of society. People who were ill died and those who were left were healthier and stronger. There was also a baby boom in the 1920’s which is often attributed to the remaining smaller and healthier population who were able to reproduce in higher numbers. A major way the Spanish Flu shaped society was the healthcare systems that were introduced. In the aftermath of the pandemic, there was a realisation that a pandemic was a global health crisis that had to be treated at the population level. It gave a huge boost to socialised medicine and healthcare systems.


At this point, it’s difficult to see how much COVID will shape society in the long term. There are aspects of society where it is already easy to notice change. Isolation has been a struggle for many people, bringing up different struggles including mental health. For many, ongoing stress, anxiety and even depression has become a constant companion.

At this point in time, it’s important to reflect on what society has learnt from previous pandemics. We now have a National Health Service, many years of medical knowledge and experience and vaccinations that have been approved and continue to be researched and developed.

The main worry now about the coronavirus is whether new strains will continue to appear and leave permanent marks on society. Will it dramatically alter how we live, work and socialise in the same way pandemics of the past have? It’s early days still, however, whatever changes, positive or negative, we will be able to use as a strength for the future.