Pandemics of the Past

Women wearing surgical masks during influenza epidemic, Brisbane 1919 National Museum of Australia.

There is solace in history if we dare to look.

In recent weeks more than ever stories from the past, provide answers or at least some context for what we are now experiencing. Many people today are drawing comfort from technology and digital platforms that help to keep us connected to one another, and to remind us that we are not in this alone. There is comfort in the stories of our ancestors – knowing that people trod a similar path long ago and may have lessons to share.


Any historian of early modern history will be familiar with the diaries of naval administrator and Member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys, who vividly recorded life in seventeenth century London. Pepys left an extraordinarily detailed account on everything from his dining habits and social life and was eyewitness to events such as the Great Plague of 1665 to 1666.

Samuel Pepys
by John Hayls
oil on canvas, 1666
Purchased, 1866
NPG 211

How sad a sight it is to see the streets so empty of people

Pepys’ account shows how people coped with the trauma of the event as it descended over the city. There are familiar parallels with our experiences today. At first, as the plague began to appear in the over-crowded suburbs of the city, Pepys went about his life as normal – frequenting coffee houses, dining out and even shopping for new clothes. Soon though, the crisis starts to enter his consciousness more, and his entries show an increasing anxiety. A melancholy starts to penetrate his writing, as he passes the boarded-up houses of sick, marked by a red cross and the words “Lord have mercy on us”, and corpses lying unburied in the streets.

People taken leave of the world

He notices changes in those around him too. Like the toilet paper hoarders of our current crisis, Pepys laments that “the plague [is] making us cruel as dogs to one another.” Soon the elites and professionals abandoned the city – fleeing to the comparative safety of their country houses. The once vibrant city began to close, as theatres, law courts and sports events shut down and even the border between England and Scotland was sealed. Pepys mourned seeing the once bustling streets of London now empty out as people either fled the city or were forced into isolation in their houses. On 16 August 1665 he wrote “How sad a sight it is to see the streets so empty of people.” Twelve days later he wrote again “But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that have taken leave of the world…Thus I think to take Adieu today of London Streets.” The poor in the city were left to fend for themselves against the rats and their plague-ridden fleas, but Pepys and his family were more fortunate and escaped to the country where they survived the Great Plague.

‘Great store of dancings…’

But his account also shows how people make the best of situations when they must. There is life and laughter in even the toughest of times.  At the end of 1665, after months of relative isolation seeing only his family, closest friends and servants he comments that “I have never lived so merrily,” and he reflects that they entertained themselves with a “great store of dancings we have had at my cost (which I was willing to indulge myself and wife) at my lodgings.”

Many of us will identify with this – faced with the struggles of working from home, in constant close quarters with our nearest and dearest. Some of us may already be finding the silver lining though as our daily lives and routines have radically simplified and we have more time for those around us. Others may simply be tearing their hair out. For better or worse though, we will never forget these days, weeks and likely months spent thrown together.

When dark days pass

If we look further back in history again, to the Black Death, we see even more significant patterns emerge, that show us not just how people coped, but how crises like this can radically shake the very structure and fabric of society. The outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that spread throughout much of the world in the fourteenth century was without question one of humanity’s darkest hours. Up to half the population of Europe died, bringing unprecedented suffering, and social and economic chaos.

There was a new world on the other side of this event though – albeit at unspeakable loss. The Black Death changed the course of European history, launching a socioeconomic transformation that paved the way for later progress. As Europe’s labour supply was diminished, the peasants who survived were able to demand higher wages, and a new level of freedom and social mobility never seen before. There were also revolutions in farming and agricultural practice. Labour-saving technologies were introduced leading to higher productivity and diets improved as land previously under tillage was freed up to raise animals. Parts of farmland in Europe were slowly reforested as fields lay empty, and so there were marked environmental improvements. The Black Death is not a precedent for what we are living through now, but the socioeconomic transformation does prompt us to ponder what lies ahead when our own dark phase has passed?


Shaping a new future

There are lessons here about how profoundly these events can shape almost every facet of our work and world. We are already seeing our workplaces and practices transformed. Long commutes have disappeared for many of us as we are forced to work from home, and by embracing technology we are finding creative and flexible ways to push through obstacles. Events from the past show us that working life on the other side of the crisis may look very different indeed. We are also already noticing environmental effects of this slowdown. Dramatic reductions in global carbon emissions and consumption show us that there are other, more sustainable ways to live.

Looking to history shows that the human story is one marked by dark chapters, but also by triumph, resilience, strength and creativity. Our ancestors shared experiences which were akin to, although not the same as those we are living, and they came through them; not unscathed and not unchanged, but undoubtedly stronger.