A History of Hope in Fear

One of the best ways to overcome fear is to get informed, but just try to find information without high-drama news covering the battle of Science vs. COVID-19 that doesn’t feed our worse fears!

There’s another way to find hope in this historic crisis: history.

Reading about historical pandemics is reading in the past tense. Not only is that reassuring but so is finding recurring themes that dominate, for example themes of human resilience and ingenuity.

The stories of past pandemics include different horrors, people, places, and panics, but the universal themes hold steady. In the stories from the past we find hope for today.

Enjoyable, Brief Reading

Books and articles on the topic abound, but I found a particularly enjoyable (yes, enjoyable) compilation of twelve such stories, told in brief, in How Past Plagues & Pandemics Have Shaped Human History which “helps gauge how infectious diseases have changed society.”[1]

Much of this reading is easier than you might think. It’s hard not to enjoy stories of heroism and overcoming dire challenges — and, yes, sometimes comical ways the human race behaves when it panics collectively.

Low-Stress Information

Here are some of the least or no-distressing articles with information to help quell anxieties and to inspire.

In What Social Distancing Looked Like in 1666, Annalee Newitz of The New York Times covers how humanity has been surviving plagues for thousands of years, and how we have managed to learn a lot along the way.

In Plague Time: Simon Schama on What History Tells Us (Financial Times), Simon Schama dives into how, across millennia, epidemics have tested friendships, faith and society – and offered reason to hope amid the horror.

In The Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1793: Nine Observations and Lessons (Journal of the American Revolution), Brian Patrick O’Malley looks back at how Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak of 1793 might remind Americans of the initial public reaction to the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak and the 1980s AIDS crisis. It puts into context how fears far outstripped the danger, and how science and society worked together to beat the odds.

In The Outbreak that Invented Intensive Care (Nature), Hannah Wunsch portrays how a heroic community at a daring hospital saved lives and led to the creation of today’s ventilators, which have had a very direct impact on saving lives during COVID.

In Keep It Clean: The Surprising 130-Year History of Handwashing (The Guardian), Amy Fleming notes how well into the years of the American Civil War doctor’s didn’t wash their hands, going from handling a cadaver to delivering a baby. Enter a Hungarian medic with a new idea who overcame tremendous professional resistance and changed the entire medical profession.

An article with special appeal, perhaps, if you enjoy HGTV, How Infectious Disease Defined the American Bathroom (CityLab), by Elizabeth Yuko, chronicles how cholera and tuberculosis outbreaks transformed the design and technology of the home bathroom.

While some articles may seem benign to the point of absurdity, none are. Each makes thought-provoking links to the current health crisis and to its potential to do good even as it builds on the work of past innovations.

Wee Bit Challenging

Some other articles that quantify and detail the horror and impact may not be for the more anxious among you, but I’ll leave you to bookmark the compilation and read when and if you are inclined.

There are instructive parallels to be found in one article comparing the 1917-1918 Spanish flu and 2000 COVID-19. One article compiles excerpts from novels whose authors lived through plagues. Another is a study of the diaries of everyday individuals who talked about daily life during different pandemic.

Some of these articles are a bit ghoulish, but I read them all, survived, and am glad for the connections I felt to fellow humans sounding very much like friends of mine now, observing daily life grown small and constricted.

Teresa’s Favorite

The article with, hands down, the most information on the greatest range of pandemics along with their historic impact is mostly a pictograph, using info-dense infographics. You might guess, it is my favorite. Even if you cannot bare written pandemic detail, the graphics alone are worth a look in History’s Deadliest Pandemics, from Ancient Rome to Modern America (Washington Post), written by Michael S. Rosenwald.


It’s important to acknowledge the voices in these stories are limited mostly to societies whose records of pandemics are most accessible: Western Europe and North America. While pandemics have burned through many societies, not all societies kept written records, and not all written records have come to us to read. (We will cover pandemics, trauma, and diverse cultural experiences in future articles and also in The Spirit Fire Global Conference on Abuse and Faith next year.)

Closing Thought

Reading about past pandemics reveals something important it can be hard to find as we live through the current pandemic. We find the resilience of the human spirit and the life-and-death importance of working together to care for the common good. We find it not only in the past, but by reading the past we also recognize it in ourselves in our present. It can give us hope for the future.

Getting through this pandemic isn’t any more clear-cut than recovery from trauma, but both are paths we must and can walk – one step at a time.

[1] This post originally appeared on Pocket Collection and was published April 28, 2020 and republished by permission on GetPocket.com, referenced here under creative commons permission: How past plagues have changed human history, accessed 8/9/20 https://getpocket.com/explore/item/how-past-plagues-pandemics-have-shaped-human-history?utm_source=emailsynd&utm_medium=social

Please note that The New York Times, Washington Post and some (but not all) of the other sources for individual articles have firewalls. Free access to articles is limited to a small number per viewer. More access requires a subscription.

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