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Pandemics and History: Wilkes Dean Offers Perspective

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By Paul Riggs, dean, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Paul Riggs

What can the history of pandemics teach us about our present crisis? As someone whose teaching and research touch on the history of disease, I thought I would share some observations about previous pandemics before offering some personal thoughts.

History demonstrates quite clearly that virgin soil pandemics can be catastrophic. The great plague of the 14th century killed about 40% of western Europe’s population between 1348 and 1350. Worse still was the impact after 1492 of Old World diseases on the native people of the Americas, whose population declined by about 90% within two or three generations. In both these cases, the pathogens attacked populations with little or no immunity, and the devastation of these crises explains why public health officials have been so concerned.

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