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How Pandemics Have Shaped Major Historical Events

historical pandemics
Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Large-scale tragedies have affected the course of history for better or for worse for millennia, slowly shaping and molding our world into the one we know today. Wars come with technological advances and pandemics have a history of molding our geopolitics. However, would these events have happened later if there was no sickness? Obviously, it is impossible to discern whether certain events would have occurred without the pandemic or not, but we probably can speculate how certain events might have played out.

Different chain reactions caused by pandemics

Like dominos, the intervention of a pandemic causes a chain reaction, interrupting the previous flow of history. In 1802, the island Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti), was controlled by the French. However, a rebellion broke loose, and Napoleon dispatched nearly 30,000 soldiers and sailors to the island to suppress the rebellion. To Napoleon’s dismay, his troops also would be fighting against yellow fever. The disease was killing Napoleon’s troops at a rate of 100-120 men per day, dwindling his forces to a fraction of their original size in just a short few months. At the time, the French-controlled Louisiana Territory in the New World, which they were hoping to keep. However, the costly struggles during the rebellion and yellow fever ultimately swayed Napoleon to sell the 828,000-square-mile territory to the U.S. for $15 million in 1803. Who knows what America would look like today if there was no yellow fever to cripple Napoleon’s military.

When President Woodrow Wilson fell ill with the Spanish flu, he was in Paris for the treaty negotiations to determine the direction of a post-World War I Europe. Wilson believed that the defeated Germans should be punished lightly and that the nations there should focus more on his idealistic plan, The League of Nations, to prevent future wars. But French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whose countries had endured much devastation during the conflict, wanted to punish Germany more harshly by having them pay in territory and reparations. When the exhausted Wilson returned to the table a week later, he gave up most of the demands that he had been pressing for. Historians believe that his weakened state affected his negotiating abilities after his illness. This treaty humiliated and devastated the German economy, setting the stage for the return of German nationalism and pride, which was eventually a rallying cause of Adolf Hitler. Could a more forceful and healthy Wilson have secured a better peace? Would that peace have prevented WWII? We will never know.

What does this mean for COVID-19?

Today, we are faced with a new pandemic that has affected many people’s lives. There are many political events currently happening that might have been caused by COVID. Would China have implemented its National Security Law on Hong Kong? China probably saw the pandemic as an opportunity to implement the law without major retaliation because everyone else is concentrating on their own countries. Would the U.K. have banned Huawei if the pandemic didn’t happen? Would the relationship between the U.S. and China be this dire? Would the U.S. presidential election be very different if there weren’t a pandemic? Would the U.S. have opened up toward Taiwan? These are many possibilities that could have been different if it weren’t for COVID. However, we will never know those possibilities because this is reality, and, for better or for worse, we have to live with it.

What other future historical events do you think will be caused by COVID-19?

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