Read: What you can do right now about the coronavirus
In my historical research, I study the period from 1500 to 1800, a three-century span during which millions of people endured warfare, displacement, confinement, labor exploitation, insufficient access to medical treatment, and unsanitary living conditions. This period was also defined by then-unprecedented levels of regional and global travel, trade, conflict, and forced and voluntary migrations.
During the period I study, everyone’s well-being was at some risk in some way during a smallpox epidemic, regardless of whether a person was the colonist or the colonized, the enslaver or the enslaved, rich or poor, or of African, Native American, or European descent. The first recorded smallpox outbreak in the Americas struck the Caribbean roughly 500 years ago; a European man arrived on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola carrying the disease in 1518. This outbreak ultimately killed thousands of free and bound Taíno people who performed agricultural and mining labor on the island. Many Native Americans were particularly vulnerable during smallpox outbreaks because they had not previously been exposed to the disease and were therefore not immune.
Only people who developed smallpox immunity after contracting the disease, naturally or by inoculation, were safe from Variola virus. But smallpox epidemics still imperiled those who survived and gained immunity. After epidemics passed, survivors grieved deserted towns whose inhabitants had either died or fled in panic. Descriptions of deceased and ailing enslaved or bound African, Native, and European laborers punctuate early modern correspondence about famines that ensued after agricultural labor became untenable. Goods weren’t the only thing in short supply. Clergymen, slaveholders, and colonial officials lamented the suspension of normal religious, social, and political gatherings.
Contagious diseases spread and kill when humans create the social and material conditions for them to do so, and they harm entire societies, often in unpredictable ways.
One might be tempted to believe that human conditions have radically improved since the early modern period, yet the new coronavirus is arriving in societies ripe for contagion. It is now spreading in states where tens of thousands of people are without permanent shelter or sanitary living conditions and rely on food banks for survival. COVID-19 is also spreading in states with large populations of incarcerated people, where inmates and detainees live in crowded conditions and lack adequate health care, food, and hygiene. Many of the states listed in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest situation report have key international ports, transit hubs, and manufacturing and agricultural centers—locations whose importance to global trade and distribution networks frequently does not translate into adequate pay or health insurance for the people who work in them. Farm, factory, and transit workers in many states are notoriously underpaid and underinsured, if insured at all, and may have to perform “super” commutes on public transit daily. These conditions are perfect for novel viruses to spread and disrupt trade and distribution networks, supply chains, and daily life within and beyond the borders of any one country.