From the Black Death to AIDS, pandemics have shaped human history. Coronavirus will too

Savage Premium Subscription


Hernan Cortés fled the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1520 under blistering military assault, losing the bulk of his troops on his escape to the coast. But the Spanish conquistador unknowingly left behind a weapon far more devastating than guns and swords: smallpox. When he returned to retake the city, it was reeling amid an epidemic that would level the Aztec population, destroy its power structures and lead to an empire’s brutal defeat — initiating a centuries-long annihilation of native societies from Tierra del Fuego to the Bering Strait. From the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death to polio and AIDS, pandemics have violently reshaped civilization since humans first settled into towns thousands of years ago. While the outbreaks wrought their death tolls and grief, they also prompted massive transformation — in medicine, technology, government, education, religion, arts, social hierarchy, sanitation. Before the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, cities thought nothing of mingling their sewage and water supply. No one can know exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately change the world. Unforeseen consequences will lead to even more unforeseen consequences. But stress cracks are already showing. Nations are turning inward. Rulers are seeking more authoritarian power. The decline of American leadership is accelerating. Economies are facing recessions. People are living in fear and distrust, with many losing jobs and potentially facing poverty they’ve never experienced before. At the same time, scientists, technocrats and businesses are working feverishly to stem this pandemic and better prepare for the next one. There is little doubt new technology will rise from this epic crisis.