The Impact of Diseases and Disasters on Society

There is no doubt that natural disasters claim the lives of many each year. Man-made disasters cause just as much havoc, or more. Despite the devastation that they cause, the biggest changes these disasters bring are generally in regard to precautionary policies. The most profound example of the magnitude of a disaster’s impact is arguably the Black Plague. Illness is a separate type of disaster; it holds the power to redesign society itself.

The Black Plague was a disease that ran rampant throughout Europe between the late 1340’s- early 1350’s.

The plague claimed the lives of roughly 25 million people in Europe, and completely decimated whole towns (Mason 2014). It has recently become debatable exactly how transmission of the plague occurs; though originally thought to be the result of disease spread through rats and fleas, it is now being considered that pneumatic transmission and/or parasites are more likely based upon the rapid infection rate (Guarino 2018). Regardless of mode of transmission, the Black Plague was expedient, claiming it’s victims within 3 days of infection.

One major impact upon society was that social mobility was immediately obtainable for survivors of the plague. One prominent example of this is the Medici family of Florence (Szalay 2016). Following the plague, the family moved to Florence, and rose to near royalty status. As the plague killed indiscriminately, favorable positions were open across all of Europe; and with nearly half the population eradicated, many families took advantage of the opportunity to secure new positions in politics and government.

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The plague also provided serfs with new opportunities. Prior to the plague, overpopulation in many areas resulted in starving peasants and crowded farming. Following the plague, there was a massive shortage in labor. This allowed the serfs to move on to new lords and new lands, receiving better compensation (Gunnell 2012). King Edward III tries to put measures into place to prevent overpaying, however this was ineffective. This single change contributed to significant quality of life changes for the poorest members of society, and was a stepping stone to some much larger conflicts in England’s future.

As the plague was widely thought to be the wrath of God, it without doubt had significant impact to religion. Prior to the plague, clergy members had been seen as ‘higher than human’ so to speak. Their ability to commune with the Almighty and distribute His word was a privilege, and these men surely held God’s favor. Upon seeing that the plague did not discriminate against the clergy, and how the clergy responded to the plague (by refusing to give last rites among other actions), the people become somewhat disillusioned with the church (Heresy, war, and the black death [Video File] 1999). The people started to see the clergy as mere men, and instead began putting their faith directly into God instead of those who supposedly represent Him. This disillusionment significantly contributed to the successfulness of Protestantism.

It is a frequently asked question- What would happen in modern society should an illness or other widespread disaster occur? Luckily, modern medicine has all but eliminated our concerns about the plague. But, we do face new threats each and every day. In order to best estimate the ramifications of a disaster of this magnitude, we should examine the impact of smaller similar events.

Arguably the worst nuclear disaster in modern history is the Chernobyl Accident, resulting in the direct deaths of over 28 people, and the continuous health concerns of over 100,000. It is estimated that this single event has cost the Russian government over $200 billion, created significant areas of land that are uninhabitable and unusable, and caused health concerns for future generations (Amadeo 2017). The Chernobyl Accident refers to the two explosions that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986; and the resulting radioactive fallout.

While the death toll for this occurrence is nowhere close to that of the Black Plague, it does offer some perspective of what the ramifications would be for a large scale nuclear disaster. Despite being located in a small town, this event devastated a massive surrounding area. It hurt Russia’s domestic and foreign trade for several years. Additionally, the oversights in safety disclosure combined with the economic losses caused the collapse of the USSR.

Based upon this example, I do not believe that a nuclear disaster would garner the same level of social reorganization that the Black Plague did. I believe that it may cause a significant amount of death and destruction; and in our society, could cause a bigger gap between the wage classes. I also believe that history has taught us to be more judicious with how we utilize nuclear weapons and energy, thus hopefully preventing a massive disaster.

Natural disasters occur frequently. While we cannot control weather or geology, we have advanced significantly regarding scientific monitoring of these events. Our skills, albeit not perfect, have afforded modern man the opportunity to not only better prepare for a natural disaster, but all out avoid it through evacuation. Natural disasters do cause significant damage, and death; however, not to the extent that it would be society-altering.

Illnesses and the spread of disease are a huge concern in society. Even though we have made tremendous strides in medical advancement, biological factors such as viruses and diseases continue to cause worry for many different reasons. In modern history, we can see several examples of how society changes in regard to an illness. For example, when HIV/AIDS first erupted in America, it could be likened to the Black Plague; we didn’t understand how it spread, how to stop it, who it could affect. Since its arrival, HIV/AIDS has been classified as a medical catastrophe, as well as brought about significant social and cultural change, and continues to do so (CDC 2001). While HIV/AIDS has not come close to the magnitude of the Black Plague, it is representative of how critical a widespread virus could be.

As medical care and treatment advancements have improved exponentially compared to the time of the Black Plague, it is unlikely that a similar illness could have the same results. However, airborne viruses remain a possibility. Viruses cannot be killed like bacteria, and they often mutate from person to person due to the replication process (Freudenrich 2000). This makes viruses inherently more difficult to prevent and treat. For example, the common cold is a virus; and it is highly unlikely that you would contract the same strain twice in a lifetime. This is because the body’s natural defense system creates immunities to some viruses (Freudenrich 2000). Additionally, we have devised many safety and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of illnesses through contact and fluid transmission; however, protocols to prevent airborne transmission are not nearly as effective.

The best example (though fictional) of an airborne virus that could match the catastrophic level of the Black Plague is illustrated in Stephen King’s The Stand. Not only does the virus in this story decimate the population, but it is as rapid acting as the Black Plague was. Those that survive are faced with rebuilding society; and can choose to return to something similar to what society was prior to the outbreak, or build a new version of society. This is precisely what would occur should there be an epidemic of this magnitude. Social class would be reorganized based not necessarily upon the criteria that we use currently, but upon one’s usefulness in a semi- apocalyptic world.

Additionally, as modern society has begun to significantly shift away from traditional Christianity in America, it is likely that a minority amount of the population would feel an event of this magnitude was God’s vengeance (as with the Plague); more likely it would result in the dissolvement of the religions we presently see, leaving instead a plethora of new practices. When everyone you know is dead or dying, it matters not whether you are Christian, Atheist, Democrat, or Republican; all that is important is survival.

The great Roman poet Ovid said, “We are all bound thither; we are hastening to the same common goal. Black death calls all things under the sway of its laws” (2018). While the ‘black death’ he speaks of isn’t the Black Plague, the sentiment expressed rings true of any massive pandemic illness. Death is indiscriminate regardless of any classifications. Because of this, whether past, present, or future, any lethal illness has the potential to destroy and recreate human society; and to do so in ways more profound than any other type of disaster.

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The Impact of Diseases and Disasters on Society. (2022, Dec 10). Retrieved from

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