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Past pandemics have reshaped society. Will coronavirus do the same?


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: With COVID-19 cases on the rise in many parts of the country, it's easy to think that we are living in unprecedented times, but is that true?

Jeffrey Brown spoke with two historians about how pandemics have shaped societies in the past, and what those experiences can teach us about living with the coronavirus now.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: "The doctors were unable to cope, since they were treating the disease for the first time."

The images are contemporary, but the words ancient. Greek historian Thucydides describes a 5th century B.C. plague that devastated Athens as it warred with Sparta. The epidemic contributed to Athens' defeat and helped bring an end to its experiment with democracy, just one example of how disease has shaped human history.

Frank Snowden: Everything about us, our art, our culture, our religion, has been informed, inflected, should we say, with the passage of death and suffering in the form of disease.

Jeffrey Brown: Frank Snowden, professor emeritus at Yale University, is author of "Epidemics and Society." He now lives in Rome, a city reopening after imposing a strict lockdown.

It's also a city that has seen the impact of disease before. Skeletal remains from the 5th century A.D. Show victims of a malaria outbreak, one that wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire's military and economic might.

Pandemics throughout history, often captured in the imaginations of artists, have hit in specific ways, with different impacts. Beginning in the 14th century, Bubonic plague changed the course of Western civilization. A third of Europe's population perished. Historians see enormous political and economic impacts.

Worker shortages gave serfs more bargaining power and hastened the end of feudalism. Snowden also cites a growing awareness of public health.

Frank Snowden: Doctors had personal protective equipment, that is, the plague costumes, the masks and a rod for social distancing.

Jeffrey Brown: William Shakespeare experienced plague in 16th and 17 century England.

Frank Snowden: There's not a play directly about plague. But if you want to shock your audience, you can mention the plague.

Actor: A plague on both your houses.

Frank Snowden: That would have had an extraordinary resonance in a Shakespearian play.

Jeffrey Brown: But not all pandemics resonate in the cultural memory. The so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 was different.

Nancy Bristow: In an amazing way, almost immediately following the pandemic, it just disappears from the American public conversation.

Jeffrey Brown: Nancy Bristow, a history professor at the University of Puget Sound, is author of "American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic."

Bristow's great-grandparents were two of the 675,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide who died, numbers that far surpassed those killed in the World War raging at the same time. In some smaller ways, the pandemic did alter American life.

Nancy Bristow: As a result of the pandemic, public spitting really was frowned upon. Another thing that disappears for us is the public drinking cup.

Jeffrey Brown: But, overall, Bristow says the pandemic reinforced the status quo.

Nancy Bristow: In the midst of the pandemic, people who were poor might suffer from cold and hunger and homelessness. People of color would find themselves excluded from the emergency hospitals that were produced.

And yet, in the aftermath, there was no movement to repair those problems.

Jeffrey Brown: So, a pandemic that didn't leave any trace, but you wish it had.

Nancy Bristow: That's exactly right.

I think there were lessons that could have been learned. But, honestly, it's a somewhat human and certainly American tendency to put aside and eventually forget those things in our past that are unpleasant or that don't speak to who we want to be or imagine ourselves to be.

Jeffrey Brown: As many have noted, the pandemic we're living through has exposed the continuing inequities in our time, with communities of color hit especially hard.

And in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, protesters across the nation, many wearing masks, decided to take their calls for a more just society to the streets, despite the health risks.

Frank Snowden says the history of pandemic and illness offers choices for us all.

Frank Snowden: It's a crisis because terrible things can happen. But it's also a time of opportunity.

This is a time when we can reimagine our lives in ways that would make us safer than we were this time around, that could actually leave the world a safer, better place for our grandchildren.

Jeffrey Brown: A hope for the future, with an eye on the past.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And we can hope.

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