Epidemics, much like wars or natural disasters, profoundly influence the course of history. Consider a few examples. Smallpox, malaria, and influenza decimated indigenous Americans after European contact in the 16th century, paving the way for western colonisation of the New World. Yellow fever helped turn the tide of the Haitian Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century. Over a hundred years later, Spanish flu became a deadly combatant in the trenches of World War I. Some scholars credit the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s with pushing the gay rights movement into the political mainstream.

Covid-19 will have its own lasting political effects. History offers us lessons on how epidemics transform society – and how diseases leave their imprint on the world’s social and political fabric. Here are four such lessons to consider.

Fuelling racism and bigotry

First, epidemics inflame nativism and racial bigotry. Donald Trump’s allusion to the “Chinese virus” has faint echoes in the 19th century, when cholera – dubbed “Asiatic cholera” in the press – ravaged the world in several waves. European diplomats, searching for people to blame for transmission of the disease, especially singled-out Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, although several other potent vectors were equally at fault.

Others pointed to Indians, since cholera originated in Bengal. Hindu ascetics with “rags and hair and skin freighted with vermin and impregnated with infection”, scoffed WW Hunter, a prominent British colonial official, in 1872, “may any year slay thousands of the most talented and the most beautiful of our age in Vienna, London, or Washington”. Their “carelessness imperils lives far more valuable than their own”.

The idea that Indians or Muslims were dirty, and therefore ideal candidates for carrying disease, had lasting political consequences, shaping policy on immigration and travel.

Across the Atlantic, American nativists fashioned public health into an argument against immigration of different people, including Russians and Eastern European Jews.

During a cholera outbreak in 1892, which beleaguered European ports ferrying Jewish emigres Westward, nativists howled for closing the borders. “These people are offensive enough at best; under the present circumstances they are a positive menace to the health of the country,” remarked the New York Times. Benjamin Harrison was the first United States president to ban immigration via an executive order, which lasted until early 1893.

Causing social upheaval

The 19th-century cholera outbreaks point to a second consequence of epidemics: social upheaval. Samuel Cohn, a professor at the University of Glasgow, notes that popular revolts blossomed in the wake of worldwide cholera outbreaks from the 1830s through the 1910s.

“Cholera riots” convulsed cities in Europe and North America, sometimes cross-pollinating with movements for political reform. In Donetsk in Ukraine, rioters burned the entire city to the ground during an 1892 epidemic.

Nicholas I of Russia quells a 'cholera riot' on the Sennaya Square in St Petersburg. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC0 Public Domain)

The rioters regularly targeted political elites and authorities. Disturbingly, Cohn discovered that doctors and medical workers also bore the brunt of the violence. Many people – unversed in the nature of disease transmission and spooked by high mortality rates in cholera hospitals – believed medical science to be the elites’ tool for killing off large segments of the poor.

Then, as today, people discounted medical advice and experts, citing rumor and hearsay. They resisted or evaded quarantine, seeking solace in religion or tradition as more efficacious agents against disease.

Sparking political movements

With “cholera riots” in mind, we come to a third historical lesson: epidemics tend to catalyse political movements, especially radical ones. Consider the plague epidemic that swept through Western India in the mid-1890s. British colonial authorities reacted with such draconian measures that they managed to alienate a vast cross-section of Indian political opinion. Even moderate voices like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who had maintained a modicum of faith in British justice, now openly compared the Raj to the brutal autocracy of Russian czars.

The high-handed colonial response was a fillip to revolutionary politics in India. In 1897, on the very day Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee in faraway London, two Indian revolutionaries gunned down the British plague commissioner in Poona. The incident thrust radical nationalists, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, into the national limelight. Tilak, whose writings against plague measures might have inspired the Poona assassins, was imprisoned for sedition, but emerged from jail as a hero.

The plague measures, assassination, and Tilak’s trial accelerated moderate-radical fissures in the Indian National Congress. By 1903, the Congress’ plucky founder, Scotsman Allan Octavian Hume, admitted that he had lost faith in constitutional methods for reforming the Raj. He only saw “oceans of blood” in India’s future.

At the same time, the plague and the colonial government’s response galvanised anti-imperialism in Great Britain. Socialist politicians like Henry Hyndman, who founded Britain’s first socialist party, joined Indian revolutionaries in advocating violent revolution against British rule. Hyndman anointed Victoria as “the Queen of Black Death.”

Connect worlds

The plague of the 1890s probably first reached India via a ship from Hong Kong, demonstrating how disease thrived as the world became more connected. And that brings us to a final lesson from history: epidemics, which are a sure sign of globalisation, can also accelerate globalisation. Today, as national borders close and planes sit idly at deserted airports, it can be tempting to see the pandemic as a setback to global integration.

Such a setback is likely to be very temporary. Neither cholera nor plague during the 19th century, nor the Spanish flu in the 20th century, put the breaks on globalisation. Although epidemics occasionally stopped “undesirable” immigration, global trade and travel by elites continued apace.

Epidemics actually helped spawn nascent avenues of global cooperation, such as international sanitary conferences, which began in 1851. These brought together diplomats and medical experts from around the world.

Valeska Huber, a historian at Freie Universität Berlin, believes that the conferences were “the first attempt to tackle the problem of the propagation of disease through international co-operation.” They were a distant forerunner to the World Health Organisation – a 19th century response to the same questions of global pandemic control we are facing today.

Nativism, social upheaval, political radicalisation, and globalisation – these are a potent and somewhat contradictory mix of forces. No doubt other forces will be at play. History is a far from perfect method for predicting the future, but it suggests that we are in for some interesting times.

Dinyar Patel is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism.