COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, and the “Spanish flu”: historical moments and social transformations

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Peter Wagner (Barcelona)

It is common to claim that the world after COVID-19 will be very different from the one before. Saying this gives the virus SARS-CoV-2 a certain magnitude of significance, we may say. If expressed as magnitude, such a statement invites comparison with some kind of quantitative component. But saying so also qualifies the emergence of the virus as an event, in William Sewell’s understanding of the term, namely as a structure-transforming occurrence (Sewell 1996; see also Romano 2009; Boltanski 2018). Events bring a new interpretation of one’s situation about. This new interpretation may be the result of the conceptual labour that already stands in the background of the occurrence, such as in the case of the storming of the Bastille (as analyzed by Sewell). A virus, though, does not as such carry an interpretation; it merely erupts and requires interpretative work afterwards. For it to become an event, we have to endow it with significance.

Let me say at the outset that I am not certain whether the post-COVID-19 world will be very different from the one before. Nor can I confidently pronounce myself on whether the post-COVID-19 world is likely to be better or worse than the one we still have now. The main reason for my reluctance stems from the fact that we all are still in the process of endowing the virus with significance. Interpretative struggles over its meaning, and whether it has any major meaning, are going on (and those who prefer the world not to change too much are currently rather silent, on the defensive, but this moment will not last). All I have to offer are some reflections on how and why the appearance of the virus may acquire lasting socio-political significance as well as on what kind of significance this could be. Or in other words, what are the possibilities for the COVID-19 crisis to trigger a major social transformation, and more specifically, a desirable social transformation? These reflections are shaped by, and draw on, the European experience with COVID-19, as will become visible, but I will also take some steps towards setting this experience within its global context.

COVID-19’s magnitude of significance

An important aspect of SARS-CoV-2 and its consequence COVID-19 is that little was known about the behavioural features of the virus in human beings at the outset. And even though the efforts to increase knowledge are enormous and bear fruit, still little is known. Epidemiologists and public health scholars expected something of this kind to occur but did not know what exactly would happen and what could be done about it. This pronounced and persistent lack of knowledge is something that needs to be kept in mind when analysing the evolving socio-political reactions to the pandemic. Everything that follows is meant to be said, and should be read, with due caution. Future knowledge may considerably change the situation and its assessment (see Wagner 2020 for a first reflection on knowledge and politics with regard to COVID-19).

Having said this, COVID-19 made a sudden jump from insignificance to extremely high significance some time in early March 2020 – this is the date for Europe, with slight intra-European variation. Asian societies had made this leap earlier, and American, African, and Oceanian societies mostly made it slightly later, and to varying degrees. Importantly, this leap was not predominantly provoked by any major increase in knowledge about the virus or its consequences. The main difference was that it was here now, whereas it had been elsewhere before, and had largely been expected to stay elsewhere. But suddenly there was an issue that needed to be addressed. Court cases are already ongoing about the timing of this moment, namely about whether authorities had acted neglectfully by announcing this moment too late.

Here, though, I do not want to discuss timing, but instead focus on the substantive reasons for the leap in magnitude of significance. It soon became clear that, for us humans, the most important feature of SARS-CoV-2 was its specific combination of contagiousness and lethality. It was much less lethal than the illness known as SARS, provoked by SARS-CoV-1, but it spread much more quickly and widely. Based on these two indicators, we can start by making some comparison of measurable magnitudes.

In public debate, COVID-19 has often been likened to the Plague and to the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, the latter widely and misleadingly known as the Spanish flu. Literary and visual representations of these pandemics have been at hand and could easily be evoked. But the magnitudes differ enormously. Each of these pandemics killed many more people than are likely to succumb to COVID-19 – in absolute terms, but even more so in relative terms given the much smaller global population at those moments. Evoking them dramatizes the current situation, mostly without helping much to understand it.

COVID-19 has also been compared to more recent virus-triggered diseases such as Ebola and SARS, and in these cases the measure of comparison is rather straightforward: Ebola and SARS are highly contagious as well as very deadly diseases, but they do not spread easily and widely, mostly because the virus kills before the disease can spread. To keep public consciousness at peace, the latter feature is particularly relevant if the place from where the diseases spread is far away, in this case far away from the “Western” metropoles: This author has lived in different places in Europe during these epidemics, currently in Spain, and all that I had to do was to once postpone travel to Beijing for a year due to SARS.

Another comparison of magnitude, which surprisingly is less often made, is to HIV/AIDS. The virus and the disease emerged during the 1980s and caught significant public attention because of their high death toll, often among rather young people, and to a significant degree in the “West”. Like the Plague and the 1918-1920 flu, it has killed many more people than COVID-19 is likely to do, and it keeps being widespread. In contrast to what the current US President seems to think, there is no vaccine, but there is life-long medication that mostly now prevents fatal outcomes – where available, which is not the case in large areas of what we call for want of a better term the “Global South”. COVID-19 may well have embarked on a medical trajectory similar to AIDS.

Socially, though, the trajectory over time was very different. HIV/AIDS initially occupied an important place in public imagination also because contagion mostly occurred through male homosexual relations and the sharing of equipment for drug-use, which led to stigmatization, on the one hand, and to limited personal concern among the heterosexual, non-drug-using population, on the other. When the disease spread more widely, so did concern, but “safe-sex” practices and the arrival of medication soon limited the concern again. In the case of COVID-19, the dynamics of perception is reversed. For some weeks, it seemed as if everyone could be infected at any moment by any means, and with an incalculable risk of succumbing to the disease once infected. A short walk to the nearest store became associated with images from war, spy, or science-fiction movies in which unknown dangers lurk behind every corner. But as time passed, it appeared that the health risk was high for elderly people with “prior conditions”, those living in care homes, the health workers, and some other groups that came to be identified, varying by society. If you did not belong to any of those groups, then your own medical risk was not very high, statistically speaking – and, to repeat the note of caution, at the current state of knowledge.

These brief observations open up a question: At a closer look, and at the current moment, COVID-19 is not certain to have that magnitude, measured by the combined indicator of lethality and speed of diffusion, that would be required to reasonably endow it with the significance that it has in fact been given by published opinion and government reactions in many countries, not all, over the past four months. If this is so, why has COVID-19 been awarded this significance?

The lockdown, not the virus, is the event

My first step towards answering this question is saying that it is not precisely enough posed. Speaking about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 is not highly different from speaking about HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and even particularly strong “normal” flu epidemics, at the moments when those diseases arose. The virus and the disease that it provokes do not provide for an event in the sense of a structure-transforming occurrence. Rather, it is the lockdown that keeps our minds occupied and makes us imagine the difference between the world before and the world after.

One may object that this qualification is hair-splitting. The lockdown is nothing but the reaction to the virus and the disease. But the relation between the virus and the lockdown is much more tenuous than it often appears. Reactions varied considerably at the beginning. Then there was a certain convergence to the WHO recommendations. But variety persisted, and it may currently be increasing again. There is a considerable degree of indeterminacy and contingency in the way in which SARS-CoV-2 brought about the lockdown.

One could discuss this relation under the heading of whether there were reasonable alternatives to the lockdown once the disease had started spreading. Important as this question is, it is not the one on which I would like to focus. To identify the sources for the rise in significance, one needs to consider the difference between the expected and the unexpected.

SARS-CoV-2 was expected to emerge, in this or some other form. Virologists and epidemiologists were rather certain about this, and public health administration had emergency plans in the drawer for such an occurrence. Although I was rather ignorant of viruses and pandemics until very recently, even I am likely to have answered affirmatively if one of those now ubiquitous survey researchers had come up to me last year and asked whether I thought epidemics such as those caused by HIV, SARS-CoV-1 or Ebola would soon re-occur. In contrast, had I been asked whether governments in liberal-capitalist societies would in the very near future find a reason to shut down most businesses and social activities for three months, I would have found this very unlikely. The fact that it came unexpected strongly contributed to turning the lockdown into a significant experience (elaborating further on Reinhart Koselleck’s [2004] terms).

That something highly unexpected could turn into reality, and very quickly so, widely opens the space for the power of imagination. If such lockdown is possible, maybe many other things that we assumed to be impossible will be possible, too. The former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s expression “there is no alternative” became the epitome for closing down collective imagination during the 1980s, whereas the World Social Forum’s slogan “another world is possible” aimed at keeping imagination open, but for a long time rather unsuccessfully so. Between the early 1990s and the financial crisis of 2008 the horizon of expectations did not far exceed the spaces of experience, largely reversing the opening of the horizon of the future that Koselleck had identified during the decades around 1800. After 2008, the sense that a major social transformation was highly necessary grew, but neither was its probability enhanced with its increasing necessity nor did an even moderately clear picture of its contours emerge.

This is what changed with the lockdown. When the political class decided that “another world” was necessary, and be it temporarily, it became not only possible but immediately real. This brief new world was filled with ambiguities: it was a world of rising anxieties and fears, enhanced by media reporting; of heightened government control of people; of highly asymmetric exposure to the risks to health and well-being, domestically but even more so globally; but it also was a world with low pollution levels, making the global climate policy goals appear surprisingly to be in reach; with financial austerity suddenly not only deemed unnecessary but even irresponsible; and with unexpectedly renewed government commitment to public health and to solidarity with those losing work and employment. Thus, it gave rise to the dystopias and utopias that we have been offered during the past months, many of which were produced by scholars in the social sciences and humanities. The lockdown unleashed social imagination.[1]

It is a far way to go, though, from social imagination to social transformations. Collectively imagining futures is a means to bring those futures about, or at least to outline a path of action towards them (Beckert 2016). Such imagination needs to be rooted in insights about the deficiencies of the prior form of social organization, and it needs to be elaborated and voiced by actors who have the potential to bring change about – otherwise it would be “utopian” in the sense in which Karl Marx used the term. Currently, social imagination blossoms because we – collectively, our societies – do not know how to go on. But such imagination needs to create collective expectations about the future, needs to imagine futures that can be expected to become real. This is what is at stake in the interpretative struggle about the social significance of COVID-19. 

The current government discourse about the “new normal”, towards which we are supposedly heading, is part of this struggle. I am not aware of any attempt yet at analysing the current usage of this expression, but it can at least be traced to a reflection by a certain Henry Wise Wood about the new world after the end of the First World War in 1918. Interestingly, the text in question, published in the US National Electric Light Association Bulletin in December 1918, made a distinction between, on the one hand, first designing the future social organization and then implementing the design or, on the other, developing it step by step through new experiences. Subsequently, the expression was used during the Great Depression after 1929, became more widespread in psychological counselling after traumatic crises, and returned to broad usage for a societal event after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.[2] Thus, it generally expresses the conviction that a crisis can be overcome and a new stability reached, even while somewhat implicitly accepting that the “new” may be deficient compared to the “old”, exactly because something has happened and cannot be undone. As such, the current use of the expression is probably best understood as a governmental attempt to control the power of imagination by trying both to alleviate fears and to suggest that there still is control, that there is a path on which to go on, even though the “new normal” remains undefined at the moment when it is evoked. Going back to the distinction of 1918, the use of “new normal” today clearly gives priority to a step-by-step approach over an imagined future with very new contours. It aims at undoing the effects of the lockdown on the imagination.

Saying this is not intended to be a denunciation. While we may be suspicious of government discourse, there is good reason to discuss the existing range of imagined futures with a view to arriving at a more limited set of both desirable and reachable futures that can serve as action-oriented collective expectations. In a benign reading, this is what the discourse of the “new normal” is also about. In other words, there is a space between the “utopian” imagination and the governmental “new normal” in which desirable and reachable futures are located. To identify the contours of this space, we need to look at past, “comparable” social constellations to understand our current one. The remainder of this text is devoted to outlining this task; it will do so in two steps by looking at two social constellations that arguably marked different historical moments.

The question of the historical moment

The 1980s were the period during which HIV/AIDS emerged. As said above, the identification of homosexual men and drug-users as “risk groups” led to initial stigmatization of people who, in the sociological language of the time, were deviant. Homosexuality had just recently been decriminalized in many supposedly “advanced” societies, and it was still difficult, if not impossible, to openly live a homosexual relation in many places. Segregation and seclusion of carriers of the virus was a plausible health policy, not only for conservative politicians and publicists, but also in line with health policy legacies. But at the end of the first decade with AIDS it had become clear that this would not happen but that instead a combination of sexual education – to a hitherto unusual degree in the public space – and work on medical treatment would become the dominant approach.

Certainly, some behavioural features of the virus also helped: it was not as easily transmittable as SARS-CoV-2, and although AIDS is lethal, an infection with HIV mostly did not immediately lead to a life-threatening situation. But the broader social constellation at the moment was highly important. Since the 1960s, European societies had slowly moved towards greater recognition of individual liberties and had gradually come to accept plurality and diversity as an outcome of what came to be called “individualization” processes – processes that earlier would widely have been considered to endanger functionality and cohesion of societies. In the early 1980s, this process was by far not consolidated, and the AIDS crisis became a kind of test case. Stigmatization, criminalization of forms of social behaviour, and restriction of liberties were put on the agenda in the face of the crisis. Some political actors used AIDS to halt and reverse societal trends of which they were highly critical anyway. But overall these proposals were defeated, not least owing to strong mobilization of social movements, and societies continued on the trajectory of social transformation on which they had already embarked before the crisis arose (see, e.g., Baldwin 2005 for a comparative analysis of approaches to AIDS in “Northern” societies; Katito 2014 for Brazil and South Africa).

To balance the picture, let me add one other component to this sketchy characterization of the historical moment of the 1980s. The awareness of severe ecological problems had significantly increased by that time. The limitation of the earth’s biophysical resources was widely debated across society and in domestic and global politics since the publication of the Club of Rome report Limits to growth in 1972. Global warming had been recognized, too, even though this knowledge still remained largely confined to scientific circles. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm and the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro were two important moments in the development of global environmental consciousness. However, environmental action kept falling far short of what would have been required even in the terms of the official declarations, not to speak of the more far-reaching proposals of the emerging environmental movement. A common explanation for this shortcoming refers to the existence of powerful economic interests in the continued, preferably unrestricted exploitation of the planetary resources. Broadly compelling as it is, this explanation needs to be rooted in the societal context, unless one wants to accept it as a one-size-fits-all explanation for the historical development of capitalist societies.

Environmental consciousness arose in tandem with the just mentioned social transformation. In Europe, the greater recognition of individual liberties and diversity entailed that constraints to individual choice and action were removed or weakened in many areas of social life, from abortion to educational choice, from work-related collective conventions to broadcasting rules, from barriers to trade to fiscal requirements.[3] Weakening constraints to individual choice meant, at least in the given context, that it became more difficult to justify collective action, in particular authoritative collective action. The shifting of this balance can easily be seen in the environmental policies since the 1980s, many of which operate with incentivizing individual choices, with epistemic support from supposed economic knowledge. In turn, the option of concerted collective action is rarely taken, and even legal limitations to environmentally damaging individual action are not at the core of the policy agenda; and when they are resorted to, they are often not effectively enforced.

Let us jump to a quick comparative observation of public health and environmental policies. The lockdown as the predominant politico-administrative reaction to COVID-19 has roughly been justified as follows: We have entered into a situation about which we have little certain knowledge, but the knowledge we have suggests high and imminent danger for many people and for the fabric of society. Given the urgency, we have to act quickly, and given the probability of huge damage, we need to act on a principle of precaution. As it turned out, this justification for unprecedented action with high social and economic “collateral” effects has been widely accepted, at least for the time being and in public. Now let us move to climate policy: The knowledge about the effects of climate change, too is rather sound and little contested, even though some epistemic uncertainty persists, and it points to enormous, irreversible damage to the living conditions on this planet in the near future. Until now, though, no action even remotely comparable with the lockdown has been proposed to counteract climate change. Such action is considered unjustifiable, and politics is called the art of the possible, underlining that very little is possible that would be acceptable across society.[4]

Our opening question was whether there will be an important difference between the before and the after of COVID-19, whether COVID-19 can trigger a major social transformation. This question can now be made more precise in the light of the preceding reflection on the recent past, in the following way: Does the fact that the lockdown was possible indicate that our societies have moved out of a situation in which authoritative collective action was difficult to justify and implement, a situation that came to prevail since the 1980s? Or yet more specifically, is there a reasonable possibility in current democratic societies that effective collective action will be designed on the basis of wide public deliberation and used to address some of the key problems of our time that until now had proven intractable, in particular climate change and global social inequality? To come closer to an answer, we will look at another historical moment.

Towards a second great transformation?

The 1918-20 influenza pandemic had largely been forgotten until COVID-19 brought it back into public consciousness almost exactly a century later. Even though the pandemic caused many more deaths among both soldiers and civilians than the First World War, it was overshadowed by the latter. War and pandemic have in common that their extension and consequences were due to the high degree of global interconnectedness, the period leading up to the First World War now sometimes being called a “first globalization”. They may also have in common contributed to bring about a major social transformation that had been in preparation for decades but required an event to be accomplished.

Nineteenth-century imperial-liberal Europe had understood itself as being on an evolutionary trajectory of ever greater wealth and power, due to steady progress in science and industry. By the closing decades of the century, though, signs of crisis had accumulated and attempts at reorientation had been made from different segments of society. A major issue was the full inclusion of all members in societies that were still very hierarchically organized and, thus, the introduction of the principle of equality in all social institutions, held together by a state as the site of authoritative power and collective responsibility. The issues at stake had been clear to the elites since at least the 1870s, but the claims were rejected or at best placed far away on a long-lasting trajectory of societal evolution. Opposition movements tended to see the overthrowing of the political order as the only way to advance, but lacked the power to do so. The interaction of elites and social movements gradually brought about a “great transformation” in self-defence of society against the consequences of the fiction of market self-regulation, as Karl Polanyi had put it in 1944.

Described in this way, the half-century between 1870 and 1920 comes to closely resemble the one from 1970 to 2020. A rather long-lasting period of growing wealth and power, apparently self-sustained but at the same time marked by high distributive asymmetries (in the earlier period the asymmetry is domestic, in the latter global), comes slowly to an end, but for a long time the tensions keep mounting and no way is found to resolve them. Then, an event changes the dominant interpretation of the situation.

For the former period, the event was the First World War, possibly together with the 1918-1920 pandemic. It brought significant changes about that had been strongly resisted before, with variations between countries: equal universal suffrage, full recognition of trade unions and socialist parties, wage increases and welfare policies setting the stage for reduction of social inequality and recognition of collective responsibility for the well-being of all citizens. Not to forget, the 1920s also witnessed an eruption of artistic creativity with lasting impact.

Today, the need for a new or second great transformation is being evoked with increasing insistence. Can SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 turn into an event of similar significance in our time? Our preceding reflections suggest that the kind of virus and disease that they are cannot acquire this importance as such. But they may have arrived at a moment at which their emergence together with the lockdown as the political reaction may support a re-interpretation of our situation that underpins a major social transformation. We no longer live in the 1980s or 1990s, in which such a re-interpretation would have been much less likely. Today we have already moved out of the fin-du-vingtième-siècle with its emphasis on individualist liberty and unrestricted commercial drive into a new era, which shows a higher societal readiness for transformation. The experience of the lockdown has widened social imagination and has increased the potential for bringing about a positive social transformation. But we are also clearly still far away from constituting authoritative collective action towards resolving urgent problems on the basis of free expression and democratic deliberation. As an interim conclusion, three observations shall be made that may help to both relate 2020 to 1920 and to distinguish the former from the latter.

First, it has become slightly too common to see the historical “great transformation” as a success that only needs to be emulated today. To draw a straight line from the “early welfare state” and the “first wave of democratization” to the liberal-democratic welfare states of the second post-World War era means ironing out the bends and folds of historical time. Colonialism, racism, eugenics, Nazism, Stalinism and other phenomena then wrongly appear as side-ways of history that an enlightened mind would always have preferred to avoid rather than constitutive components of the last one and a half centuries of global history. But they provided ingredients that were used in the “self-defence of society”.

Looking at the current situation, second, it is far from evident what the appropriate means are to turn the lockdown into a positive structure-transforming event. While the direction of required change is relatively clear, no model solution is at hand. One should bear in mind, though, that no unequivocal model for the “great transformation” was available either from the late nineteenth century onwards. The social transformation needed to be created in extended processes of re-interpretation, and something similar may occur now.

Third, a careful analysis of the historical “great transformation” and its enduring consequences is required to distinguish similarities with the current situation from radical differences. One key twentieth-century outcome of the “great transformation”, long overlooked, was to satisfy social demands in the “North” by utilizing the planet’s biophysical and social resources elsewhere. This externalizing approach has historically created global social inequality, environmental destruction, and global warming. Problematic as it always has been, furthermore, it requires control over nature and hierarchy over other people that no longer exist today. The second “great transformation” would be insufficient if it brought “Northern” societies merely back on the trajectory inaugurated by the first “great transformation” and if “Northerners” returned to claim this as a model to follow globally. Rather, it would need to address the problems precisely created by the first “great transformation”. This awareness is not as widespread as it needs to be.


Peter Wagner is Research Professor of Social Sciences at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) and the University of Barcelona. Currently, he is also project director at Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg. The work on this article was supported by the Russian Science Foundation under grant no. 18-18-00236.


Baldwin, P. (2005), Disease and democracy: the industrialized world faces AIDS, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Beckert, J. (2016), Imagined futures: fictional expectations and capitalist dynamics, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.  

Boltanski, L. (2018), “Historical sociology and sociology of history”, Social Imaginaries, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 45-70.

Katito, J. (2014), “The role of social research in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Brazil and South Africa, 1990s-2010s”, PhD thesis, University of Barcelona.

Koselleck, R. (2005), Futures past: on the semantics of historical time, New York, Columbia University Press.

Romano, C. (2009), Event and World, New York, Fordham University Press.

Sewell, W. (1996), “Historical events as transformations of structures: inventing revolution at the Bastille” Theory and Society, vol. 25, pp. 841-81.

Wagner, P. (1994), A sociology of modernity: liberty and discipline, London: Routledge.

Wagner, P. (2020), “Knowing how to act well in time”, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, forthcoming.

[1] Let it be only noted that the varied and widespread conspiracy theories around SARS-CoV-2 indicate the heightened inclination to also imagine a different past, in which occurrences happened that had hitherto been considered impossible.

[2] Sven Yargs, “Origin of ‘the new normal’ as a free-standing phrase”, English Language & Usage, December 2014,, accessed on 26 June 2020.

[3] I proposed to analyze these parallel changes in a similar direction as the dismantling of “organized modernity”, see Wagner 1994.

[4] The expression was used by the head of the German federal government, Angela Merkel, to justify a climate policy programme in 2019 that was widely considered as insufficient. One should add that Angela Merkel stands out as a rather responsible politician in comparison with her current peers.

2 thoughts on “COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, and the “Spanish flu”: historical moments and social transformations

  1. Pingback: COVID-19: Recent publications by Members of Academia Europaea - Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub

  2. Pingback: Update: Living and Thinking Crisis online series | thesis eleven

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