Since its inception in 2019 December (WHO, 2021) COVID-19 has affected almost every country in the world. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to haunt us all around and 3rd wave warnings make it scarier, pandemic lessons from history may serve us well to understand the crisis better. 

Reflection on Prominent Pandemics in History

In the context of pandemics in history and the lessons they have to offer, this article proposes to examine fourteen prominent pandemics from Classical times till today.

Instead of historical narratives, we are using empirical evidence from major pandemics in history to derive important lessons and possible findings which could be correlated to COVID-19 crisis management challenges. Three variables – death toll, pandemic timeline, and the geographic spread of pandemics in history are captured which are juxtaposed with Covid-19 for comparative analysis and lessons.

Pandemic Findings from History

From Table.1 and Fig.1, it is evident that the death toll for Antonine Plague, Black Death, and Spanish-Flu is disproportionately high compared to the other pandemics. Possible explanation – while the spread of the Antonine plague and Spanish-Flu were aided by the movement of war troops, Black Death and Spanish-Flu reached wider geographic regions through trade routes and densely populated cities escalated the intensity of incidence (Hays, 2005). 

Similarly, Cholera pandemics lasted for a disproportionately higher duration. Cholera, carried by European colonisers, spread slowly in phases to newer colonies with wider geospatial connotations (Hays, 2005). Cholera’s slow spread was also caused by the time it took to discover that it was a water-borne disease (Kiple, 2008). In its initial years, remedies were prescribed for the mitigation of the disease without adequate scientific know-how on how it spread, which in turn helped the infection to lurk longer (Tumbe, 2020). 

In contrast to the above-mentioned pandemics, some of the other pandemics were localised. For example, the Plague of Athens was limited to the city-states of Greece (LIVESCIENCE, 2021), which explains its comparatively lower death toll. Whereas the current COVID-19 Pandemic has a worldwide impact, and hence a larger death toll.

Lesson for COVID-19 management

Like Cholera and Black Death, which travelled through colonisation and trade routes, COVID-19 coupled with globalisation and increased worldwide travel has left more than 3.7 million people dead. The possibility of COVID-19 being a lab-designed bioweapon (POLITIFACT, 2021) further complicates the issue. Given the interdependent world order, neither globalisation nor travel can be curtailed. Considering the immense development in the healthcare system today, vaccination, hygienic living, and travel solutions seem to be the only options to handle Covid-19. 


  • WHO. (2021). Timeline: WHO’s COVID-19 response. Retrieved June 2021:
  • Hays, J. N. (2005). Epidemics and Pandemics. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.
  • Kiple, K. F. (Ed.). (2008). The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. United States of America: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tumbe, C. (2020). The Age of Pandemics. Harper Collins Publishers India.
  • LIVESCIENCE. (2021, March). 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history. Retrieved 2021 June
  • POLITIFACT. (2021). Debating the origins of the COVID-19 virus: What we know, what we don’t know. Retrieved 2021 June:

This blog is written by CPPR InternsSonal Kuruvilla & Mohammed Shafeek P.K under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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