Pandemics: One Little Germ can Change the World


In Europe in the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out nearly a third of the continent’s population. In 1918, the H1N1 pandemic affected approximately 500 million people worldwide. In 2020, Covid -19 brought the entire world to a standstill. History seems to repeat itself - for as long as humans have been around, diseases have been around. 

Definition of a Pandemic

Diseases can take a multitude of forms, and range widely in their scope and impact. A pandemic is specifically defined as a global, large-scale outbreak of a particular disease. Though disease is ubiquitous throughout human history, the methods at our disposal to combat pandemics have progressed dramatically. Modern medicine has developed technologies to prevent, detect, and stop the spread of infectious diseases and mitigate the worst consequences of pandemics. National governments have learned to combine the best practices of medicine with policy-making in order to oversee effective treatment, surveillance, and diagnostic capabilities. 

How It Works

You’ve probably heard the saying “the best offense is a good defense.” The same logic that holds true for sports applies to global health as well. The World Health Organization is one international institution that has taken this philosophy to heart. The WHO empowers national governments with the information, resources, tools, and manpower necessary to invest in preventative healthcare infrastructure. If disease manages to evade preventative measures, the WHO plays an essential role in the next line of defense: swift detection. Prompt reporting of a new disease can be quite literally a matter of life or death. Once governments are alerted of the emergence of a new disease, they can mobilize their resources and draw upon federal action plans and programs. 

What do Governments Actually do?

Governments prepare for many political, social, and economic consequences to an outbreak. Basic steps include maintaining water and sanitation systems, increasing public awareness, and publishing accurate information about disease spread. To track the progress of a pandemic, governments often rely on statistical models to predict where a disease will hit heaviest and where to implement contact tracing and isolation procedures. They also account for the ripple effects that disease has on larger society: many policies plan for the likely impact on businesses, essential services, and educational institutions, and plan the allocation of resources to protect employees and ensure economic stability. For example, during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic, many nations like the U.S., England, India, Turkey, Spain, and others, announced stimulus packages to help vulnerable workers and businesses. 

Why Care?

Disease isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, with increased global travel, land exploitation, and urbanization, it’s incidence and severity will only increase. It’s therefore essential that government policy is guided by responsible lawmakers that collaborate with the public health sector. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that all people are not affected equally by the consequences of a pandemic. There are significant differences in the burden of disease felt by those in developing countries versus those in developed countries, with the latter having a greater availability of and access to essential resources and medications. Even citizens of a single country can face stark discrepancies in the healthcare and services available to particular socioeconomic and racial groups. An essential task of governments is to reduce health disparities by identifying communities at disproportionate risk of poor health outcomes and designing interventions to reduce these disparities. Early detection, comprehensive assessment, and vigilant monitoring of disease that is built upon principles of equity and compassion is how governments can keep their citizens safe. 

Think Further

  1. If you were in charge of a government during a national pandemic, what would your priorities be? 
  2. What are some factors that might make some people more vulnerable to pandemics than others?
  3. Do you think governments should sometimes violate citizen’s privacy in order to monitor disease and keep them safe? 


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Learn More

  1. Gates, Bill, et al. “Responding to Covid-19 – A Once-in-a-Century Pandemic? NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2020.
  2. “Roles and Responsibilities in Preparedness and Response. ” Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response: A WHO Guidance Document., U.S. National Library of Medicine
  3. Chotiner, Isaac, et al. “How Governments Respond to Pandemics Like the Coronavirus.” The New Yorker,