What can we learn from the great literature of pandemics and pestilences

Throughout centuries, illness, death, and fear resulting from epidemics and pandemics have played a major role in the history of humankind. In additional to historical records of these events, we have at our disposal many fictional books that portray narratives of human despair, sorrow, and grief originating from the authoritative force of social transformation brought about by infectious diseases. [1-8] Major pandemics documented in these works, by way of fear, have shaped human emotions and fostered radical change in cultural beliefs. For centuries, people considered human illnesses as phenomena caused by the supernatural or religious realms. In medieval Europe, the disastrous spread of the black plague through urban and remote rural settings exacerbated existential threats and precipitated a sociological transition from the middle ages to the Renaissance. [3] A growing secular community emerged from the pandemic, as people searched for a new understanding of the natural world. [3]

In “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), the Colombian Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel García Marquez tells the story of a plague of insomnia that infested the Buendía family in the town of Macondo.  As time went by, all family members lost their memory and lost track of their identity and they recovered their stories as told by a Gypsy that visited town over the years. In this tale, Garcia Marquez illustrates that storytelling in our collective memories supports the pillars of our human essence.  The great literature of plagues, pestilences, and pandemics reveals that we are bound to each other, to life in general, and to the wild forces of the natural word.

Many collected works of plagues contain fictional narratives of uncertainty that triggered social disruption, demographic transition, and civil unrest. In “A Journal of the Year of the Plague” (1720) Daniel Defoe tells us about the social destruction elicited by the spread of the Black Plague in London’s parishes in 1665. Mary Shelley’s “The last Man Standing” (1826) challenges human existence by depicting an apocalyptic scenario of the annihilation of the human race by a pandemic. Both, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) and “The Plague” (1947) by Albert Camus’s portray the long lasting political change and social calamities triggered by a major pandemic. The fiction text “Blindness” (1995) by the Portuguese Nobel Prize laureate Jose Saramago chronicles an epidemic of blindness as a parable to the ruthlessness of political authoritarianism of the Twentieth century. 

The stories of plagues also remind us that social hierarchies, racial differences, and wealth determine peoples’ ability to shield from the ravages of pandemics. Across the ages, plague and death often disproportionately reach socially disenfranchised populations due to their underlying vulnerabilities linked to inequalities. Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (1353) is set during the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. Seven women and three men escaping from the plague in a secluded rich villa in the outskirts of Florence, and take turns as storytellers for ten days. Similarly, according to Defoe, in order to try to escape plague, wealthy Londoners risked the lives of their servants by sending them to the streets for supplies.  

The record of fictional tales in these texts provides a sociological and historical framework to contextualize the events surrounding the covid-19 pandemic, by revealing deeply entrenched fault lines in societies that predispose many people to health disparities. The present pandemic offers a unique opportunity to forge a new narrative of social justice. With sufficient collective moral courage, future generations may have at their disposal literary accounts emerging from the covid-19 pandemic that document a transformation of the cruelties and violence of modern civilization towards a new human trajectory dominated by overwhelming acts of kindness.  

Carlos Franco-Paredes is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado. He is a clinician and advocate for advancing health equity interventions to reduce disparities among underserved populations.

Conflicts of interest: nothing to disclose.


  1. McNeill, W.H.; McNeill, W. Plagues and Peoples; Anchor: New York, NY, USA, 1998.
  2. Morens DM, Daszak P, Markel H, Taubenberger JK. Pandemic COVID-19 Joins History’s Pandemic Legion. mBio. 2020 May 29;11(3):e00812-20.
  3. Berry T. The dream of the earth. The Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, California, USA 1988.
  4. Defoe D. A Journey of the Plague Year. Digi reads. Monee, IL, USA, 2020.
  5. Snyder, R. Apocalypse and Indeterminacy in Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”. Studies in Romanticism 1978; 17(4), 435-452. 
  6. Poe EA. The Masque of the Red Death and other tales of disease of disease and death, pestilence, and plague. Copell, TX, USA, 2020.
  7. Camus A. The Plague. Vintage International. First International Edition, New York, New York, USA, 1981. 
  8. Saramago J. Blindness. The Harvill Press, First Edition (In English), London, United Kingdom, 1997. 
  9. García Márquez G. Cien Años de Soledad. Alfaguara, Real Academia Española, Madrid, Espana, 2007.
  10. Boccacio G. The Decameron. Prince Galehaut. Digi reads. Monee, IL, USA, 2020.
  11. Young-Ok A. “Read your fall”: The signs of plague in “The Last Man”. Studies in Romanticism 2005; 44(4): 581-604.