Read Caption
A team from FIMMG—Italy’s professional association of medical doctors—performs diagnostic tests in a nursing home in Tolfa, a city north of Rome, where a staff member was found to be positive for COVID-19.
MagazineFrom the Editor

A reflection on what we've failed to learn from past pandemics

Would COVID-19 have caught the world so off guard if we had taken lessons from past pandemics? Probably not, as our cover story explains.

This story appears in the August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It’s apparently humankind’s fate never to stop writing the history of pandemics. No matter how often they occur—and they do occur with great frequency—we collectively refuse to think about them until circumstances demand it.

Then, when the immediate crisis passes, we put it out of our minds as quickly as possible. And so we again are unprepared when the next contagion—in this case, COVID-19—bursts upon us.

Richard Conniff traces this alarming cycle in “How devastating pandemics change us,” this month’s cover story. It examines our long relationship with infectious diseases, from the hard lessons we’ve been forced to learn to the brave, and often difficult, characters who’ve risked their lives to save us.

Smallpox taught us that we could prevent disease through inoculation and, as the 1700s ended, vaccination.

By the mid-1800s, cholera’s lesson was about sanitation and the need for centralized water and sewer systems. About the same time, one man we’ve all heard of, Louis Pasteur, and one many of us haven’t, Robert Koch, became the co-fathers of germ theory. Tools they created are still used to identify and fight what Conniff calls “an astonishing rogues’ gallery of deadly pathogens.”

And yet here we are, again, fighting on two fronts: the first, against a new coronavirus sweeping the planet to devastating effect; the second, with each other, over domestic and international politics and whether we’re willing to pay the price of prevention.

As Conniff puts it: “Will a society that has barely quibbled about spending $13 billion on an aircraft carrier, largely in the service of preventing armed conflict, also accept spending on an even grander scale to prevent epidemic diseases?”

It’s an important question for our planet. While we debate, the next pandemic draws nearer.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.