During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians of medicine, disease, and health became frequent guests in academic talks and even in national media. These historians' expertise suddenly appeared relevant, particularly those who worked on two previous pandemics, the 14th-century Black Death and the 1918 influenza pandemic. This article examines how history was searched for possible insights and predictions about the present-day pandemic. The article then traces why assumptions about what COVID would do based on the past, such as COVID leading to a leveling of inequality, were faulty: these supposed lessons from the past flattened pandemics into one-size-fits-all approaches, which existed in neither the past nor the present. To understand the possibilities and limits of what pandemics do, we must ground the differing experiences of a pandemic in their specific times and places. In particular, framing pandemic responses in terms of resilience serves to center the market and the state, rather than individuals. The article concludes with thoughts on how to make changes during a pandemic that center people, not states or profits.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 421-435
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.