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What history teaches us about the coronavirus pandemic

What history teaches us about the coronavirus pandemic 

Currently there is much debate over what kind of policy is best for dealing with the coronavirus epidemic. We are dealing with a true pandemicand have been ever since the virus was confirmed to have spread to every continent in early February. This will not be over by the summer but will last in a series of episodes for about eighteen months. The virus has a bad combination of qualities inasmuch as it is highly infectious but has serious effects in a large proportion of cases and a not-insignificant mortality rate while in addition another large part of those infected show no symptoms. What is worth doing is thinking about the likely longer-term results and here history is the best guide.

Pandemics and major epidemics are a recurrent feature of human history. A true pandemic is global but the term is also used for any epidemic that spreads widely beyond its geographical point of origin. In such cases it is spread by humans, though their movement and that of animals associated with us, such as rats and lice. Pandemics are epidemics that spread throughout what we may call an ecumene, a part of the world that has an integrated economy and division of labour, held together and produced by trade and exchange. What we now have is a truly global ecumene. If we look at the history of pandemics, they tend to occur at the end of a period of increasing trade and economic integration over a large part of the planet’s surface. That is because those processes have results, such as much more human movement and increased urbanisation, that make major epidemics more likely. Historically pandemics have spread along trade and exchange routes.

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