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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Inequalities: A Past and Present Understanding of Mitigating Pandemics


The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on many of the inequalities people face because of their socioeconomic status. Some of these disparities include accessible health care, medicine, consistent income, and the everyday risk of exposure. However, this division between the upper and lower socioeconomic classes is not new. This can be seen time and time again throughout history, especially in the cases of past pandemics in early modern Europe. Diseases such as the Black Plague, leprosy, and cholera infiltrated and affected communities throughout Europe and Italy, the latter being the focus of this article. In it, we compare the ways that past pandemics affected people in cities like Rome and Venice, and who was affected most and why. Did the same disparities between socioeconomic classes exist as they do today with the current COVID-19 pandemic? Have we progressed much as a society? It is important to explore how these socioeconomic differences emphasize the inequalities within society when it comes to basic human needs and rights, like safety and public health, and how they track from centuries ago to the present day.

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