Andrew Sullivan’s last piece for NY Magazine

Andrew Sullivan is moving to a new site, his own Daily Dish revived as the Weekly Dish. But his farewell piece in New York Magazine is not last week’s column, but today’s long article—about plagues. Well researched and engagingly written, it’s a change from Sullivan’s usual discussions of politics and sociology. It’s long (7 pages printed out in 9-point type), but well worth reading. Click on the screenshot to do so:

If you haven’t read one of the many good books on plagues and epidemics, this is a worthy substitute. Sullivan’s aim is not only to describe the many plagues that afflicted our species over recorded history, but also to explain why they happened as well as the sequelae, both good and bad. Going from smallpox in the Roman era through bubonic plague in medieval Europe and the big effect of smallpox on the American Continental Army to the “Spanish influenza” and then the viruses of today, the article is a pretty horrifying chronicle. Sullivan describes his own experiences during the AIDS epidemic (which, he argues, helped speed the acceptance of gay rights), and winds up musing about how Covid-19 might lead to a reinvention of society in ways both good and bad. The worst “bad” is the globalization and disruption of the environment that may release more plagues to come: Sullivan is pretty sure we’ll be ravaged now and again for the forseeable future. All in all, it’s not a happy piece.

A few excerpts:

Paradoxically, the Black Death also reshaped and rebuilt the rural economy to benefit the poor. With half the population suddenly wiped out by bubonic plague, food became plentiful and cheap as soon as the harvests returned, because there were so many fewer mouths to feed, and the price of labor soared because so many workers had perished. Day laborers suddenly had some leverage over the owners of land and exploited it. A manpower shortage also led to innovations. With fewer people on higher wages, for example, the cost of making a book became prohibitive — because it required plenty of scribes and copiers. And so the incentive to invent the printing press was created. Industries like fishing (new methods of curing), shipping (new kinds of ships both bigger and requiring less manpower), and mining (new water pumps) innovated to do more with fewer people. The historian David Herlihy puts it this way: “Plague … broke the Malthusian deadlock … which threatened to hold Europe in its traditional ways for the indefinite future.”

In these two bookends of European plague, in the sixth and then the 14th century, you see two ways in which epidemic disease changed society and culture. In one, the disruption and dislocation of mass disease sent the world into a long de-civilizing process; Roman society was gutted and its empire dissolved into various fiefdoms. In the other, a mass-death event triggered a revival, economic and spiritual, in a kind of cleansing process that restarted European society. They were caused by the same disease. In one case, it brought collapse; in the other, rebirth.


If the 1918 flu pandemic were to occur today, one 2013 study found, it would kill between 188,000 and 337,000 Americans. The reason the death toll would be so much lower than the 675,000 Americans who actually died is that medicine has improved. Many of those who died endured bacterial co-infections, which are now far more treatable with antibiotics. Globally, somewhere around 100 million human beings perished.

The flu’s symptoms were horrifying. In her book Pandemic 1918, Catharine Arnold notes that “victims collapsed in the streets, hemorrhaging from lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue with the characteristic ‘heliotrope cyanosis’ caused by oxygen failure as the lungs filled with pus, and they gasped for breath from ‘air-hunger’ like landed fish.” The nosebleeds were projectile, covering the surroundings with blood. “When their lungs collapsed,” one witness recounted, “air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled — an awful crackling noise which sounded like Rice Crispies [sic] when you pour milk over them.”


Do we go back to where we were, or do we somehow reinvent ourselves for a new future?

You can see the potential contours of a similar response today. This plague makes a strong argument for a more aggressive approach to public health, which would mean, at a minimum, extending health insurance to everyone in the country, as well as reform and renewal for the disgraced CDC and WHO. It could unleash a new wave of infrastructure spending to repair the immense damage to the economy. It could, and absolutely should, end the argument over preventing climate change — because it is so deeply connected to new viral outbreaks, as shifts to hotter weather portend a highly dangerous upheaval in the animal and microbial worlds. And while I worry that this plague could well usher in a new era in which traditional liberalism gives way to a freshly invigorated collective leftism, particularly around identity politics, it could also deeply wound the appeal of the populist right in America, which, once in government, failed the core test of preventing an open-ended, lengthy period of infection, sickness, and death.

Some existing trends might also intensify. It’s hard to see how a policy of mass immigration or free trade will survive public scrutiny for long in a world where viruses cross borders with such surpassing ease. The U.S.-China relationship, already tense, could deteriorate still further. Living online, with all the isolation and depression and extremism that can generate, is now an even stronger and widespread norm, as we avoid physical interaction even more than we did previously. Same with working from home: The atomization of our culture, the already increasing levels of depression, loneliness, and antisocial behavior could deepen further. The collapse of small retail has been accelerated, and the power of the giant tech companies is ever greater. And the epidemic has not assuaged the yawning gap between rich and poor. While COVID relief has made a real, temporary impact, the stark social and economic inequality in the country looms as large as ever. Rates of suicide, drug abuse, and overdosing could climb even higher.


And we are not in control. If you are still complacent that human science and technology have removed the potential for the mass extinction of humans, you should wake up. We have lucked out so far. COVID-19 is extremely transmissible but not that fatal to most people, all things considered. But even those countries that are success stories didn’t see it coming in the first place and have experienced resilient breakouts. We still have no vaccine — it may be a year or more before we get one, and we do not know how effective it will be. Imagine the next pandemic pathogen as something as devastating as Ebola and as contagious as the flu. We are as defenseless as we have ever been. This relatively mild virus shut the entire world down for a couple of months. What happens when a much worse one shuts it down for longer?

Knowledge of a brutal new virus does not prevent its spread. Only a much more profound reorientation of humankind will lower the odds: moving out of cities, curtailing global travel, ending carbon energy, mask wearing in public as a permanent feature of our lives. We either do this to lower the odds of mass death or let nature do what it does — eventually so winnowing the human stock that we are no longer a threat to the planet we live on.

That’s the sobering long view. It is hard to look at the history of plagues without reflecting on the fact that civilizations created them and that our shift from our hunter-gatherer origins into a world of globally connected city-dwelling masses has always had a time bomb attached to it. It has already gone off a few times in the past few thousand years, and we have somehow rebounded, but not without long periods, as in post-Roman Europe, of civilizational collapse. But our civilization is far bigger than Rome’s ever was: truly global and, in many ways, too big to fail. And the time bomb is still there — and its future impact could be far greater than in the past. In the strange silence of this plague, if you listen hard, you can still hear it ticking.

Let nobody say that Andrew Sullivan is an optimist.

And I need a drink.

h/t: cesar


  1. jezgrove
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    “And I need a drink” – me too, that long view was very sobering!

  2. Simon Hayward
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, several fingers of decent scotch to mull it over. It took a while to get through (with meetings interspersed) but informative and well worth it. Sullivan’s writing always seems to reflect his mood, up and down (and sometimes totally losing it) more closely than most writers. I think of it as a feature, rather than a bug

    • Tim Harris
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      It was very much more more of a bug than a feature in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when he was calling anyone who was against the war traitorous leftists. I wrote to him saying that there were good realistic reasons not to embark on the war, and that he was wrong and dishonest to smear all those who were against it in the way he was doing – not to mention that the case for the war was quite clearly built on lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’. He can write quite well, but I do not trust him. I actually asked him, ‘How do you expect readers to trust you?’

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Really good subject to write about and for everyone to think about. I felt I knew a little about the 1918 flu but only because my grandfather had it and almost died from it. As far as the current pandemic goes, we are a long way from being through this one and it is out of control in this country. Who would have guessed the U.S. would be the worst in handling this disease. As they circle the refrigerated trucks in Texas because they are out of space in the morgues we can only guess what the final damage will be. I also wonder if anyone has learned a lesson about who we choose to lead this country.

  4. Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Andrew based his piece largely on books which he cites, so I’m not sure whether this is in the books or is Andrew’s, but the article is rather inexact about who the “Romans” were. Rome “fell” over several centuries, and the events of the 6th century which Andrew describes crippled, for awhile, the East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. (Both of these terms are modern– Justinian would just say he ruled over the “Romans”, but his people mostly spoke Greek and were not in Italy.) The Empire in the West had slipped away earlier. The Justinian Plague helped abort Justinian’s partial reconquest of the West, but did not bring down the Empire (which continued for nearly another millenium).

    Similarly, the Christianization of the Empire was well-established by the 6th century. The events of the 6th century could alter the course of Roman Christianity, but Zeus was no longer a competitor.

    That diseases and natural disasters– not just barbarians, rival empires, and civil war– affected the Roman Empire is an important lesson to learn. But by joining events stretched over 6 centuries as though they were a closely connected series, the effects of plagues and disasters are both obscured and made to seem too singularly explanatory.

    • bonetired
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Kyle Harper’s book is clear on this and emphasises that by the late 5th Century the Western Empire had fallen to mass migrations from the Eurasian plains, driven, in large part, by the end of the Roman Climate Optimum followed by the start of a new, climatically disorganised period. I agree that Sullivan isn’t clear on this in his article, but Harper is.

      As for the Empire continuing for another 1000 years ( I assume you mean until 1453). Well, sort of. The “Empire” was a tiny rump of what it had been in the 6th century, being concentrated in an area smaller than modern Turkey, with the occasional expansion like that under Basil II.

      It was the spread of Islam that really destroyed its power in the 7th and 8th centuries.

      • Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Ok, good to know Harper is clearer on these points. The Empire was indeed a tiny rump of itself in 1453. But after fighting off two Arab attempts on Constantinople, the Empire rebounded, and consisted for a long time of Anatolia, the southern Balkans, and various other places; and Constantinople was a great city. The loss of Anatolia after the Battle of Manzikert in the late 11th century did greatly reduce the territorial extent of the Empire– but don’t forget the brief successes of the Comneni! 🙂

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:46 am | Permalink

        Actually the Roman Empire example is inaccurate even if he meant the East Roman Empire. The East Roman Empire did not dissolve into fiefdoms after the plague at all. There was no significant territorial shrink (other than the loss of some fresh conquest of Justinian) or decline of central authority for generations. Then they got overrun by the Jihad and lost Egypt and the Levant, but that happened almost a full century after the plague.
        And the Western Roman empire does not fit either. It did dissolve into fiefdoms, but that was already a finished process by the time of the plague.

        So clarifying the term Roman Empire does not help that sentence, it is still a historically very inaccurate hyperbole, as no entity called Roman Empire fits the description given.

        I think that the claim that printing (in Europe) was developed due to workforce pressure after the plague is also a tad forced. Printing was developed tree generations after the plague. The population already recovered in most of Europe by then.

        Our host writings made Sullivan somewhat likeable for me, but I have an impression that he prefers compelling narratives against accuracy.

        [I apologize if I post this comment twice. This is my first time commenting since the page changes and I am wrestling with WordPress somewhat]

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

          Also I noticed that Sullivan seems to attribute depopulation of cities (what I think he means by dissolving into fiefdoms) to plagues where this is a common pattern when any civilization starts to falter. You typically head for the hills. You see the same in populations that inhabited the Acropolis during the Greek Dark Ages and in other big cities at the time.

          • bonetired
            Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

            And yet Rome’s population really did crash from about 1.25 million in 150 AD to about 30,000 in 550. I suspect that Sullivan was thinking, in part, of Rome.

            Click to access 26_Twine.pdf

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Yes, I kept thinking he was referring to the Roman Empire of the East and not the West.

      The Western Roman Empire (I don’t know as much about the Eastern) tended to suffer through plagues over and over throughout their history.

      I mostly liked the piece for the gruesome descriptions of the diseases themselves and that it brought some humanity to the situations where I see it glossed over often. For example, the infant mortality rate was fairly high in Rome and also people died earlier than they do today so if you made it out of childhood you were lucky and Romans tended to not get too horribly attached to babies. Those same babies never knew grand parents for the most part because people bought the farm so I often think about how different society was then from a pure family perspective in a society that relied strongly and valued profoundly, family connections.

  5. GBJames
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink


    Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I need a drink too, but I think mine will be a bit stronger than your’s. Maybe I’ll smoke a little weed as well. Then I’ll re- read some Jane Austin—aahh, nothing like it.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    I like it. Andrew Sullivan is such a good writer and anyone who has studied history especially that of Mediaeval Europe or Ancient Rome knows how death was so much closer for a civilization with a high infant mortality rate and a low chance of living into old age. It permeated their entire culture and can be seen in their art and their politics.

    I do find it irksome that the extroverted keep complaining about how bleak the future will be with work from home and spew venom at anyone who enjoys it, often citing depression and suicide as the inevitable result. I’m really enjoying working this way as it is my ideal. Many of us introverts are quite content this way and you didn’t hear us complaining when we had to enter the extrovert world and manage our depression and suicide ideation. No, instead you scoffed at us. Times have changed.

    • dd
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I too am something of an introvert. A close friend remarked how cozy the current situation would be for me (given that one is corona-free.)

      How right he is. No drive to work and more time to read and think.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . you didn’t hear us complaining when we had to enter the extrovert world and manage our depression and suicide ideation . . . .”

      Due to social distancing and sequestering, it will be a while before the NY Times reportorial psychoanalysts can again presume to pronounce someone a “loner” in their reportage.

    • Curtis
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      From my personal observations, there is a general sense of depression and ennui. We seem to be living in ground hog day where each day is like the last with no new people, vacations, adventures or even sports to liven it up. Throw in health and financial fears, broken dreams and nothing to look forward to and life generally sucks.

      The people I see without roommates or family are particularly hard hit. People with intellectual disabilities or mental illness seem dazed and confused. Their old routines are gone and the new ones are not working very well.

      • Filippo
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        ” . . . or even sports to liven it up.”

        I’m reminded I need to open up that badminton pack and head for the back yard. 😉

    • rickflick
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Death was much closer for my parents generation, even. They lived before Penicillin and the Polio vaccine. Loss of infants was a thing. They were born during the 1918 flu pandemic. After the 1950, it seems, there was a sense we had been carried past all that by modern medicine. But, God had other tricks up his sleeve, didn’t he.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        Even in my lifetime, things were worse. I had the smallpox vaccine so before that smallpox was a real thing. There was no MMR vaccine and I had rubella and some sort of cough. All as an infant or toddler. I accused my mom of taking me out too much and having people touch me.

        • Posted July 21, 2020 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

          24 members of my Great Grandfather’s family died during the “Spanish Flu”.

          Many men who lived in my Grandfather’s lifetime had more than one wife due to the first wife’s dying in childbirth or the aftereffects thereof. His first wife died in childbirth. A great many children did not survive into adulthood also. One of my mother’s sisters died at birth, Another died of Measles. Her brother had such a high fever with Measles that it affected his brain. Mom almost died of several diseases that were common in her childhood.

          I had Asthma, Measles, Whooping Cough, and Chicken Pox in childhood before high school.
          No treatments. I wasn’t allowed out and about much in the summertime for fear I’d contract Polio. No treatment.

          By the time I had my children, treatments were available to prevent most childhood diseases. Polio vaccine came about during their childhood.

  8. rickflick
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Looks like a very good read. I’ll take time to do that. Sullivan is quite a character. I enjoy seeing him on Bill Maher’s show. There he always has something interesting to add to the conversation.

  9. dd
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Many of us who lived through the late 70s (even before anyone had an idea what was going on) through the 80s and 90s of the AIDS epidemic, sensed strongly that AIDS would speed up the advent of gay rights.

    It’s doubtful that there would be gay marriage and the large acceptance of gays in the West and Anglophone societies elsewhere without the trial of AIDS.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I’m gen x so we came of age during AIDS and sometimes I wonder if people who don’t get taking precautions didn’t grow up with AIDS when it was killing people or were lackadaisical about it back then too (which means they didn’t care about other STDs either).

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        I think Aids scared the hell out of most of us. It was a death sentence for so long and the transmission was via a lot of ways. I recall when Magic Johnson got it and many thought he would die from it. Of course he had to say how he got and from who so his wife was likely not too happy.

        • AlanC
          Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          My vague recollection is that there was serious concern from other NBA players (since, at the time, Magic was still playing) that the inevitable exchange of precious bodily fluids (ala Gen Jack Ripper from Strangelove) during play (blood, sweat) was a danger too far. IIRC, Magic was essentially forced into retirement.

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        Gen x-er here (1971)
        AIDS was terrifying, even for straight people (pretty much unnecessarily given infection dynamics) and lead to a lifetime of almost paranoid condom use.

        Note the religious right framed it as “sin”.
        Don’t let them skate on their many crimes.
        D.A., J.D., NYC

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Yes and remember how people worried about helping accident victims because the blood could get on you and you feared contracting AIDS this way? Police officers and paramedics had a big fear of this and made sure to goggle up and put on gloves.

  10. Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Aargh! I’ve reached my Intelligencer article limit!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink


    • rickflick
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      You’re just too intelligent for them.

      • Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        Or they don’t want me to get smart. Information is power.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      I have copied it into Word. How could I get it to you? FB?

      • Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        Thanks! Please email to com pointedthoughts paul in reverse with appropriate punctuation.

  11. Curtis
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I think this is the last major plague due to advances in biomedical science plus the wake up call from coronavirus. Next time, we will react more quickly and will have better vaccine and treatments in a shorter period of time.

    Biotech was advancing quickly before coronvirus and the one good side effect is that money will be spent preventing the next pandemic. We will be able to stop any variant of coronavirus, SARs, Ebola, flu, etc.

    Another major pandemic is obviously possible but I think it is unlikely.

    • Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      We are definitely getting closer but you’re wishfully thinking. While we may be a bit better prepared next time, the high percentage of “freedom lovers” here in the US will still refuse to follow orders. Even when we are done with this pandemic, a large percentage of the population will be untouched by the virus itself and experience only the economic pain.

      There is also the problem getting most people to take the vaccine once we have one. Many are expecting this to be a big problem though they aren’t yet focusing on it as it isn’t yet the top priority.

      Assuming we have a vaccine by the end of the year, it will be the fastest ever. It would be interesting to see how much faster vaccines can be produced in the future. They’re still going to have to go through multi-phase trials which take time. If we had a reliable model of how human immune and other systems respond to a vaccine, we might skip the trials, but we’re a long way from that.

      That all said, COVID-19 was not that big a deal in many parts of the world, just the countries with weak government like the US. Sad.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        I read an article recently that suggested that there will be countries that will never see the vaccine and that the countries who manufacture the vaccine on their soil may be the only ones who will get it within the first month. It may take a year to vaccinate most if the developed world.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          Sorry first month should be first 6 months if I recall the article correctly.

        • Posted July 21, 2020 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

          Yes, and only those that don’t mind Bill Gates implanting a chip inside them will get it. 😉

      • Curtis
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

        You may be right but I am pretty sure science will be there in 30 to 50 years and our last plague was 100 years ago. Granted SARS, MERS and Covid 19 are all within the last 20 years but I think we can handle them and only one was globally serious.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      What’s to prevent an outbreak of a new virus as deadly as Ebola yet as contagious as COVID-19?

      What’s the basis for your assertion that “[n]ext time, we will react more quickly and will have better vaccine and treatments in a shorter period of time” given that there are many viruses for which we still have no vaccine, and that there appear to be no shortcuts to the time-consuming, tried-and-true method for developing a vaccine that we are endeavoring to employ right now with COVID-19?

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        Maybe if we intensely study the host species from which viruses are most likely to hop to humans, we can figure out how those species survive the virus. (You know they generally do, else the virus would wipe itself out.) See if humans are already infected and whether we are harmed. If humans are not exposed yet OR if we are and are harmed, we need to figure out how to copycat the host’s survival mechanisms into humans, where possible. Where not possible, put severe restrictions on human interactions with that host species.

        That sounds extremely difficult and expensive. And time consuming. And worth it.

        • Posted July 22, 2020 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

          My guess is we have a long way to go before we know enough to transfer immune system information between species, or am I missing something here?

        • rickflick
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

          The US had a team working in China with the Chinese on just these kinds of issues. Bats mainly. The Orange baboon pulled them out.

  12. Jon Gallant
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    During Medieval times, Holy Mother Church castigated cats as allies of Satan, and as a result cats were none too popular in Latin Christendom. It is therefore likely that fewer cats, a predator of rodents, allowed a greater number of rodents, which carried the fleas which carried Yersinia pestis. So the 14th century Black Death might have been exacerbated by Europe’s lamentable lack of cats. Since the Plague was unquestionably transmitted from Asia to Europe by trade, it can also be viewed as a natural consequence of global trade. My conclusion: if we want
    to have globalization, we need cats.

    • Posted July 22, 2020 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      At least in Australia our occasional boom in rodents is due, in large measure to badly-informed farmers shooting huge numbers of the raptors that pre-European arrivals would have controlled rodent numbers. The farming community largely hasn’t learned the lesson and now use baits to kill rats. While the raptors that manage to eat rat carcasses don’t necessarily die, their eggs are often unviable.
      We have millions of feral cats but they seem to make virtually no impact on the rodent population.

  13. Posted July 21, 2020 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Just finished reading Sullivan’s piece. Thanks, Rick! It’s a fine paper. One part had me wondering though:

    The waves of sickness through human history in the past 5,000 years (and not before) attest to this, and the outbreaks often became more devastating the bigger the settlements and the greater the agriculture and the more evolved the trade and travel.

    Surely there were pandemics before 5,000 years ago. Perhaps he is just pointing out that we weren’t good at recording history before then. Obviously, population density plays a role in pandemics but I would imagine they mostly only affected the speed with which they advanced. They would likely not have been GLOBAL pandemics, of course, since travel was non-existent or very slow. As far as I know, pandemics strike animal populations even though their density might be fairly low compared to human cities.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      I think he’s saying there were no pandemics because humans lived in small groups and lived in conditions that were not conducive to pandemics ever getting started. For that you need all the ingredients he mentions, including living closely with domestic animals, open sewers, etc. I think that did not occur until cities got larger and populations grew. Before 5000 years ago, we were mostly hunter/gathering which would obviate pandemics even more.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        The Egyptians were around and living in cities and also the Chinese. The Greeks had some stuff going on as well and had cities.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 21, 2020 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

          Yes, cities. But were they large enough to initiate epidemics, and would they spread to other cities far away. I don’t know if Sullivan has more specific evidence in mind. One of the things that is required for a pandemic is widespread contacts around the world. The Romans, it seems, were among the first to create contacts all over the Old World. Thus, they were involved in some of the first pandemics.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 21, 2020 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

            Also evidence that the bubonic plague originated in Bronze age Greece around 5000 years ago

            I strongly suspect that there have been plagues since there were cities And I suspect China had a few of them. I think Sullivan is probably correct as 5000 outs us around the Neolithic but I still think if you look at China, Syria, and all around Mesopotamia you may find plagues that go further back than 5000 years because not all of civilization entered the Neolithic or the various metal ages at the same time.

            • Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:06 am | Permalink

              “Also evidence that the bubonic plague originated in Bronze age Greece around 5000 years ago”

              The article you linked says that the plague infected human samples were:
              1. from the Samara region of Russia
              2. about 3800 years old

              So neither Greece, not 5000 years…

              BTW, this is much better on the topic:
              Emergence and Spread of Basal Lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic Decline

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

                Yeah I wasn’t paying attention and had my mind thinking about Bronze Age Greece. I misread 3800 years old as 3800 BC which would be near the Greek Neolithic.

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:27 am | Permalink

        I suspect that tribes were trading and warring with each other for a lot longer than 5000 years. Disease wouldn’t have spread fast but it things moved a bit slower back then.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          True. When I visited Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland, I learned they had trade contacts with continental Europe 6-8K years ago. But, they would have involved a few dozen people at a time. Contagion, yes. Pandemic, no.

          • Posted July 22, 2020 at 9:59 am | Permalink

            “But, they would have involved a few dozen people at a time.”

            And if just one is sick and gives it to the other side, then the disease spreads. How is this different than what happens in a pandemic?

            • GBJames
              Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:12 am | Permalink

              Newgrange is a neolithic site. These were agricultural people living in relatively dense populations and subject to pandemic communicable disease. You need to go back much further to when people were relying on hunting and gathering to find populations small enough to prevent widespread pandemic-style communicable disease.

              Today we call it “social distancing”. It doesn’t really matter if you are distant by virtue of modern lock-down or you are distant by virtue of everybody just living in small family groups, widespread across the geography. Communicable disease needs groups large enough and dense enough to spread without killing everyone off.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

                But you know people weren’t social distancing in prehistoric times. They gathered round campfires and sang songs, spraying infected particles over all their tribemates. They also visited with the next tribe over to do some trading or steal their women (or men), allowing disease to jump from group to group.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

                “Prehistoric times” is too ambiguous for use here. Hunter-gather people lived in small groups. They had, of course, no understanding of things like germs. And “social distancing” was not a concept in their repertoire, except when miscreants were expelled from the group for violating the rules of society. But this is irrelevant. Living in small groups is de facto “social distancing”.

                This is all basic archaeology/prehistory. At this point I don’t think I can say much beyond… go do some reading on the subject of prehistoric disease patterns.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                Yeah, kicked out like Highlander. A death sentence in the tribal societies but not for an immortal. There can be only one!

              • rickflick
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

                Newgrange is the best known Irish passage tomb and dates to c. 3,200BC.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                @Rick.. not sure who that factoid was targeted at. You are correct, of course. It is representative of the Neolithic in the British Isles.

              • rickflick
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                I just wanted to be specific about the dates for anyone who might not know about the Boyne Valley sites I was talking about. They give wonderful tours, by the way. Should be on everyone’s bucket list.

            • rickflick
              Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

              I guess it depends on your definition of pandemic. If a virus infects a community of 8 or 10K people in Ireland and half the population die, I wouldn’t call that a pandemic. It’s too local.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

                A pandemic is defined as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”.


              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                Yes, it does depend on the definition of pandemic. Here’s a page that attempts to define the terms:


                I will admit that our current usage of “pandemic” includes countries and continents. Clearly such things didn’t really exist in prehistoric times. I’m willing to grant that the dividing line we currently use between epidemic and pandemic can’t be easily applied to the distant past. However, the only difference between a pandemic and an epidemic is size. I maintain epidemics have always existed and some were larger than others. I think it is fair to call the largest ones pandemics. In other words, “pan” is relative.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                Not very pan.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                Continents didn’t exist in prehistory? Seriously,

                Paul, you’re missing a very basic level of Anthropological education. I’m not insulting you in saying this. But you really would do better to go read a bit.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

                I have read plenty. Perhaps you should read these things.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Paul… my graduate school work was on this subject. It is what I was trained in. You’re using a lot of words in ways that make clear that you have little understanding of the discipline.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

                With all your training, you can’t come up with a single argument to refute my arguments? You should get your money back. I’m done.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

                Paul, It is not a matter of argument, it is one of fact and evidence. Which is why the basic education is needed. In any case, I will stop now out of respect for Da Roolz which we likely have violated by now.

              • rickflick
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                “Continents didn’t exist in prehistory? Seriously,”

                You miss my point. Local outbreaks have a very hard time spreading across oceans, mountains, or even rivers, when world population is small. 5000 years ago world population would have been between 10 and 100 million. Travel would have been mainly by foot or by boat. At some point a pandemic would become possible. I have no idea when exactly. We’ll probably never know when the first pandemic occurred.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

                I more people than that. There were also horses people rode on, various wagons, horses with wagons hitched up. 5000 years ago is the time of the Greek Bronze Age – ish. So there was thriving trade, and quite a bit of movement, sophisticated armour, etc.

        • GBJames
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          People have been “warring” with each other since there have been people. But infectious disease requires people to be living in densely populate groups for effective transmission. So the kinds of diseases that affected hunting and gathering folk were very different that those which could flourish among agriculturally based populations.

          • Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            Each disease has its own characteristics when it comes to how it spreads. If the disease’s R0 is greater than 1, then the disease spreads:


            I suspect someone has a definition of how widely spread a disease must be to warrant being called a “pandemic” but that really doesn’t matter much. It is is also true that greater population density makes it easier to spread but doesn’t mean that relatively sparse populations aren’t vulnerable to a disease that can nearly wipe it out.

            • GBJames
              Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:14 am | Permalink

              A space population can’t spread pandemic disease because there is nobody to spread it to. These diseases became “popular” (so to speak) when people settled down in large enough groups and diseases crossed from other herd species (cattle, sheep, etc.).

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                “A space population can’t spread pandemic disease because there is nobody to spread it to.”

                Only if they never visit each other does the transmission rate drop to zero.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

            Yep….those plague free paleolithic times. Sure, it was rough getting food and shelter but you didn’t get the cold. 😀

            Many populations in the hundred thousands existed in the various Bronze ages of civilizations so I’m not entirely convinced pandemics have only existed for 5000 years give these population groups’ trade, warring, & city sizes.

            • Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              Thank you. IMHO, city size (and population size in general) only determined how many people got sick all other things being equal. At a time when people lived in groups of, say, a hundred then a hundred was the maximum number of people who could catch a given disease. If a disease wipes out 75% of the group, it is still a pandemic.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:05 am | Permalink

                The neolithic and the bronze age is when trouble starts for diseases. You need “cities” and contact with other cultures and a settled down life style. Sullivan is right about that but I think his 5000 years was a probably a bit off.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                All you need for disease to be transmitted from person to person is close contact. Since we’re a social species, we have always had close contact with members of our tribe and therefore disease spread among them. Groups moving (nomadic) vs staying fixed probably doesn’t change that much. Sure, fixed populations share wells and other facilities, giving more opportunities for transmission but diseases that are transmitted by sneezing, like COVID-19, would still be passed around a population, whether it is a city or a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers. Sometimes it would kill them all. Sometimes it would be transmitted to tribes they met on the road.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

                It’s what GBJames said. As human populations settled into non-nomadic groups and started farming plants and animals instead of hunting and gathering (moved from Paleolithic to Neolithic) diseases took hold. This is pretty basic anthropology.

                As cities grow and contact with other cities increase through trade and war diseases spread. My only quibble is Sullivan’s 5000 year mark which is rather inconsequential to the larger point anyway.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

                And my point is that it is living in groups, not staying put or city size or density, that allows transmission of disease and pandemics. You don’t think nomadic tribes were subject to seasonal flu, or something like COVID-19 or ebola? Nomadic tribes of monkeys are as we speak, right?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                No they probably weren’t.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:08 am | Permalink

                There are certain types of communicable disease that can’t exist in populations of 100.

                Why is this so hard?

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

                Sure. Some diseases transmit differently than others. It’s funny that you say this since the current COVID-19 pandemic has as its only requirement for transmission that the infecter and infectee both breathe in the same air. That would have been true in the smallest of hunter-gatherer groups. Some of these diseases that we fear right now are prevalent in monkey populations, right? How is a tribe of monkeys any different from the disease transmission point of view than a human hunter-gatherer group? How is what happens to the monkeys different than what we call a pandemic?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:29 am | Permalink

                You need to research the history of disease in human populations.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                We aren’t talking about history here, right? My point was that we have had pandemics for far longer than we have written history of them and, therefore, Sullivan’s 5000 years is bogus.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                I don’t think it qualifies as a pandemic if its in the tribe only. And tribes we’re typically very small. They were not sustainable in very large numbers and 100 might be high. I forget all my Paleolithic details but they typically didn’t get disease unto the Neolithic. That’s when germs took off. The reason I recommend, as GBJames did that you read up on this stuff is because you will get answers to your questions fairly quickly and in great detail about why 100 Paleolithic hunters didn’t experience pandemics. It’s all we’ll established anthropology.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

                The use of pandemic vs epidemic is relative to the times. If you want to take the WHO’s current definition of pandemic which talks about countries and continents then there were no pandemics in prehistoric times. I find that uninteresting.

                What I would like to know is precisely what you think 100 Paleolithic hunters didn’t experience. I think they sometimes all got sick and sometimes their disease spread to other groups across a wide area. Whether one would call that a pandemic or just an epidemic is academic. To me, a reasonable definition is that a disease that infected most of a tribe is an epidemic, but one that infected many tribes in a large area is a pandemic, but it is not worth arguing about. My real point is that these disease events have always existed.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                I’ve really said all that I can on the matter. The thing to ask is this: isolated groups that come into contact with no people and no animals other than killing them for food – where do they get and pass a communicable disease. You’re free to think what you like and free to think 100 is a good size for a tribe of hunter gatherers but you most likely will discover that anthropologists disagree with that belief.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I’m done also but one more thing. Obviously, tribes that do not come into contact with others won’t transmit disease but humans are a social species. Groups did contact each other. We know this because technologies like arrowhead making, and cultural things like clothing designs, spread from group to group.

              • rickflick
                Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                Pandemic: prevalent over a whole country or the world.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 21, 2020 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      I think sickness even like colds only arose once we started grouping together more and settled into the Neolithic. I’m not sure we have pandemic data that far back

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted July 21, 2020 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

        On caries, I think. Lots of teeth and easy to diagnose.

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 12:37 am | Permalink

        Sure we don’t have data. And disease was always there so perhaps it is hard to distinguish a pandemic from a regular day. However, we know that diseases sweep through other species groups to the extent we worry about their long-term survival. Surely humans lived in groups before they were even human — millions of years. I’m sure they had pandemics though how “pan” they were was limited by human range. We can assume that between continents populations were relatively isolated but within a continent there was probably plenty of opportunity for disease to spread though it might take decades or even centuries. Even in recorded history, pandemics lasted a long time, ebbing and flowing.

        • GBJames
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          We do have data. Many diseases leave traces in skeletal remains. And what they show is that living in dense populations (agriculture-based communities) results in different disease patterns.

          • Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

            Certainly but that isn’t in dispute as far as I’m concerned. My original comment was about the mention of 5000 years ago as important in Sullivan’s article. My guess is that there were pandemics, by any reasonable definition of the word, long before that. It’s just a disease that hits many in a population. Disease has created pandemics for as long as there has been disease and creatures to be infected. Sure, population density is one factor in how fast a disease spreads.

            • GBJames
              Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:18 am | Permalink

              You seem to keep missing the point that the size and density of a population is critical for the existence of pandemic diseases. Five thousand years ago we humans were dense enough. (We’re still dense, of course. Especially our president.) But go back to, say 15,000 years ago… Human populations were not capable of supporting pandemic disease.

              • Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                Size and density of a population obviously affects the transmission of disease but there’s no magic density value above which pandemics can occur and below which they do not. Sure, if groups are geographically separate and no contact occurs then no disease can be transmitted. I just doubt that no contact occurred in ancient populations except perhaps across oceans before sea travel.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 21, 2020 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    It would be good if US implements social security (such as Obamacare) for all. But I dunno about earlier pandemics – the main lessons were and remain handwashing and social distancing – though maybe this time we can implement good statistical models and learn more.

    Since vaccines were mentioned, I’ll add this which bears on the topic and bold the vaccine part:

    Today our Folkhälsomyndigheten exposed its neck in a big way.

    Currently Sweden has ~ 0 people in intensive care due to covid-19: < 10 deaths/day on average and diminishing. Despite people going out on vacation the curves are steady. [And last I heard we were going to undershoot normal death rates so we may be "working off" our death numbers even. Of interest here, in an apples to apples comparison, US has 60 % higher death count/capita than Sweden.]

    Besides releasing possible scenarios they described what they see in immunity – from statistics and epidemic modeling – and how that affects comparing nations.

    Around here, having had a covid-19 means you are immune. They don’t see reinfections and the immunity likely lasts at least 6 months – such people can see risk groups. [BIG NOTE: I don’t imply that applies elsewhere! Just an interesting observation which needs repeating.]
    Apparently the models don’t close with statistics until they add a proportion of immune people who doesn’t show antibody response. The first vaccines [that seem to do badly on promoting such response, as expected] may work somewhat anyway.

    – Also, if Norway gets a 2nd peak, Sweden may come out better. (And in worst case Norway may have to close schools again.)

  15. Posted July 21, 2020 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    It is a good article but I am skeptical about pronouncements on how this thing might change things for the better in the U.S. We will still have stupid people, stupid leaders on a regular basis, and anti-science ain’t going nowhere.

    • A C Harper
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      I suspect your skepticism is justified. Andrew Sullivan’s sub heading is ‘The meaning of this one is in our hands’ and while that is trivially true there’s no guarantee that it will be a rational choice. The ‘benefits’ of previous plagues arrived over decades and centuries of sometimes unpleasant consequences.

      OK Andrew wanted to end on an optimistic note about making choices for the future… but he couldn’t manage it.

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