History of How Pandemics End: Implications for Today’s COVID-19

Bill Petro
10 min readDec 15, 2020
“Bring out your dead.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic on everyone’s mind, the natural question is:

How have pandemics ended in the past…
and what can we learn from these historical lessons?

As a follow-up to the article I wrote at the beginning of the COVID “lockdown” back in March, the History of Pandemics, here are how some of the great pandemics of the past ended and what the aftermaths were.

Pandemics History

1. Plague of Athens — Greece, 430 BC

During the Golden Age of Greece, what appears to have been typhus — or perhaps typhoid, or smallpox — hit the city-state of Athens and surrounding areas. Dozens of other diseases have been suggested as the cause, though it is suspected to have come from Ethiopia and then through North Africa.

It came at a bad time — as if there were a good time for a pandemic. Athens was involved in the 2nd Peloponnesian War against Sparta. Athenian city officials had enacted regulations for public safety when the disease hit.

But the populace didn’t fear prosecution for breaking the laws, as they didn’t think they’d survive.

There were two waves of the disease, the first being the more deadly. Our best source on the subject, the historian Thucydides, who caught the disease but survived, wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War that it affected both strong and weak. He described the breakdown of traditional values and honor in Athens, giving way to self-indulgence:

”As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.”

Though some Athenians blamed the disease on their enemy’s poisoning their water supply, Thucydides didn’t buy it.

The Athenian leader Pericles, who succumbed to the disease, had ordered his people to withdraw behind Athens’ newly-built walls and unintentionally created an ideal environment for the disease’s spread.

There was no known remedy at the time, though Thucydides hoped that future generations would learn from them, should it appear again.

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com