How The Modern World Was Shaped By Epidemics 500 Years Ago




By Matthew Ward in The Conversation.


The coronavirus pandemic has been compared with many previous contagions, including the great plague and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. However, there has been little consideration of probably the most significant historical episode of disease. The modern world as we know it would not have existed without the epidemics that swept through the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. These epidemics created the modern world.

In the wake of Christopher Columbus’s voyages of exploration, Europeans arrived in the Americas in ever-increasing numbers. They brought with them a range of viruses, such as smallpox, influenza, measles, mumps and chickenpox, to which Native Americans had no prior exposure and no immunity. Historians call the resulting epidemics “virgin soil epidemics”.

Coronavirus has demonstrated the impact that epidemic disease can have on a vulnerable population. Similarly, these virgin soil epidemics rapidly swept through Native American communities. Societies were overwhelmed. Everyone fell sick at once: there was no one to care for the sick and no one to plant or harvest crops.


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