Epidemic Inequities: Social and Racial Inequality in the History of Pandemics

Michael F. McGovern, Keith A. Wailoo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The historiography of pandemics and inequality can be characterized by two distinct but often overlapping traditions. One centers structural and political analysis, the other a race-critical approach to the production of human difference. This bibliographic essay reviews historical scholarship in these traditions spanning the past hundred years, with a focus on Anglophone literature in the history of medicine in the United States over the past half century. Early writing on the history of epidemics celebrated the conquest of disease through the application of laboratory research. Insights from social history and environmental history came to inform new analyses of epidemic inequalities, drawing questions of race, class, and empire into the frame during the 1960s and 1970s. The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s further oriented scholarship toward reckoning with stigma, identity, and human experiences of inequality while also troubling the relationship between medicine and the state. In more recent decades, the scholarship on race, social inequality, and pandemics has become deep and broad, remedying longstanding biases toward elite scientific actors and the metropolitan centers of Europe and the East Coast of the United States. In expanding their vision, historians also have engaged in more nuanced analyses of racialization as a social, environmental, and ideological process of embodying difference. Further, where earlier scholarship often relied on mortality data, there has been growing awareness of how numbers shape narratives and are shaped by them in turn. In its conclusion, the essay highlights emerging themes in race and inequality with particular attention to themes that have become prominent amid the global devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S206-S246
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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