Part Three – Plagued by Worry: An Historical Look at Pandemics in Four Parts

Read Part One and Part Two

When a disease is ready to spread to humans, it will find a way, and, like rats, bacteria do not recognize international borders.  It’s natural to want to find something to blame for a disease like this.  But it shouldn’t be at the expense of already vulnerable populations, or whole races.

Part Three

Some Social Justice Implications of Pandemics

Ableism Exposed

Interviewee with a disability: I need some flexibility in hours and the ability to work at home at least part of the week due to my disability.

Employer: Oh, I’m sorry, but we require the person hired for this job to physically be in our offices from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday, so I’m afraid we won’t be able to hire you.

Suddenly, employers are bending over backward to make sure folks can work from home, safely, and be flexible with their hours due to closed childcare services and schools, or are making changes at their physical offices to ensure social distancing and other precautions can be maintained.  They have had this ability all along but before now have refused to make adjustments for people with disabilities.

Grocery stores, restaurants, and other important service providers are offering delivery services and/or curb-side pickup.  These would be excellent services to continue, especially for those with disabilities who might have trouble navigating aisles and crowds.  I will definitely be watching to see if these services are kept after the pandemic has eased.

Better wages

After the Black Death, feudal serfs were far more in demand, so they were in a better bargaining position for wages, rent fees, food supplies, and other necessities.  Granted, the lords came back with new laws to try to maintain the previous rate of wages, but they were poorly enforced.  There are a few cases of folks who tried to enforce the new laws being met with violence.  Current essential workers in some companies have been granted higher pay, or other benefits.  Of course, some companies (looking at you, Kroger) have tried to have workers repay their benefits, but they have largely failed.  Regardless, it’s a good time, especially for essential workers, to organize and make sure they are paid fairly for their labor.

Biological warfare

Yes, disease- and plague-infected materials have been used in warfare to attempt to spread disease and thus weaken perceived enemies.  This tactic was used by the commander at Fort Pitt to try to spread smallpox against the indigenous nations who were fighting the white colonizers in Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763).  The United States has a long history of trying to infect indigenous populations with various diseases.  But Japanese forces also used bubonic plague-laced materials in World War II – dropping plague fleas in both Changde and Ningbo, China – so the concept of using disease as a weapon of war has hardly disappeared.  I’m sure several readers will also remember the anthrax attacks in 2001, as well.

Healthcare and Income

Is a system where your healthcare is contingent on your job really the best system, especially in a pandemic?  As folks are facing layoffs, furloughs, or businesses going under and losing their jobs entirely, we’re forcing them to also worry about what happens if they get COVID-19 (or, really, any other illness or medical emergency).

Also, is it time to discuss a universal basic income in this country?  If we returned to tax rates of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time on the top 10%, there would be plenty of money available to guarantee a basic income to every American citizen (AND universal health care).  This would mean that, rather than a paltry one-time payment of $1,200 to compensate for a few months of job insecurity or loss, people would be able to stay at home and not worry about at least some of their bills.  Small business owners wouldn’t be facing the agonizing decision of whether to fire their staff or risk opening their businesses too early and endangering their customers, especially those businesses with a lot of intimate personal contact (manicures, hair salons, etc.).  Part of the reason that we’re still seeing cases of COVID-19 is that some people have no choice but to go to their jobs (deemed “essential”).  Just imagine how many fewer cases we could have if everyone could afford to stay in their homes.


Putting aside the fact that our prisons and jails are filled with people who don’t belong there (nonviolent drug offenders and folks who just can’t afford bail, for example), and the litany of other injustices rampant in the “criminal justice” system, they are overcrowded and often unsanitary.  This makes them a breeding ground for diseases to enter and stay put.  Incarcerated people who could be safely released should have been released as quickly as possible to mitigate the effects of this pandemic.  Instead, we now have prisons in Pennsylvania with huge numbers of infected inmates.

Vulnerable Populations

Black and brown people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ folks, older folks, people with underlying medical conditions – all these folks have been disproportionately affected by pandemics.  They lack the money and access to accurate testing.  They more often serve in “essential” service positions, which puts them at greater risk for contracting disease (especially when customers try to skirt the guidelines).  They are the first on the list to be “let go” if hospitals have to choose which folks get respirators and other life-saving equipment and treatment.  This country’s built-in racism, ageism, ableism, and more is being exposed in this current pandemic.

Xenophobia, Racism, and Antisemitism

In the plague years, as the flea-infested rats (and, let’s face it, humans on the ships) brought the disease on merchant vessels from far-away lands, it was easy to blame “foreigners” for causing the pandemic.  Jews were also blamed, as was the style at the time in Europe, though it had absolutely no basis in reality.  The facts of the matter are that since Europe, Africa, and Asia are all connected via land routes, the plague would have eventually gotten into Europe and Africa even if there was NO international trade and travel.  It would have taken a whole lot longer, but eventually it would have arrived and spread.  Rats don’t recognize international borders, after all.  Today, our Asian friends are bearing the brunt of the heat for COVID-19.  Again, this is unjust.  When a disease is ready to spread to humans, it will find a way, and, like rats, bacteria do not recognize international borders.  It’s natural to want to find something to blame for a disease like this.  But it shouldn’t be at the expense of already vulnerable populations, or whole races.

Governments from China all the way to ours here in the US have made major mistakes in the current pandemic, from ignoring it to downplaying it (sound familiar?).  Blame belongs on those who held the power and had the opportunity to act differently.  To use a disease to justify your latent racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism is disgusting.

Historical look at plaguesp

Anne E. Lynch is the Executive Director of Three Rivers Community Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding progressive social change in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in anthropology and a minor in history. She penned On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History, a small book with important events and people from the region that furthered social justice, and from that developed the Progressive History of Pittsburgh Facebook page ( She is also the author of two cookbooks under her Vegan Goddess persona. She has some odd passions, however, one of which is the history and imagery of the Black Death and other plague outbreaks.


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