Lesson Plan

Coronavirus: Lessons From Past Epidemics


This 11-minute documentary provides students with the context needed to understand how the current fight against the coronavirus, COVID-19, is built upon previous public health campaigns to eradicate epidemics like polio and smallpox.

It also helps them examine the history of anti-disease efforts on the world stage, and illustrates the importance of different tools in the elimination of diseases. The video focuses on Dr. Larry Brilliant, who applies the lessons he learned from fighting smallpox and polio to the fight against COVID-19.


  • How international organizations and the U.S. government have sought to eradicate infectious diseases like smallpox.
  • How the changing global political landscape after smallpox was eradicated made polio more difficult.
  • How social trust and other tools relate to the suppression of contagious diseases.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • Science
  • Health
  • 21st Century
  • Coronavirus
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • Public Health
  • Smallpox
  • Polio
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

The race for a vaccine against COVID19 recalls past efforts to conquer infectious diseases. Dr. Larry Brilliant learned about epidemics while working to eradicate smallpox in India in the 1970s. An estimated 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century alone. Because all cases needed to be identified in order to vaccinate those around the patient, he and scores of Indian health workers went door-to-door checking more than 100 million households. They used unorthodox methods – like parades with elephants to lure children into view. Finally, on October 16, 1975 two-year-old Rahima Banu was the last person to be diagnosed with Variola Major–the deadliest strain of the smallpox virus.

But smallpox remains the only infectious disease to have been globally extinguished. Energized by the success of the smallpox program, the global public health community moved to tackle another ancient scourge: polio, a killer virus which paralyzed more than 300,000 people that year. The new campaign surged ahead, and polio was eliminated from 118 countries in only 14 years. But there have been setbacks, largely due to the lack of public trust and today it remains active in two countries.

Today, in fighting the coronavirus, Dr. Brilliant is urging the U.S. to speed up testing, the mobilization of medical supplies and building of field hospitals, and for public health experts to think outside the box, a hallmark of the effort that eradicated smallpox.

Essential Questions

  • Why did they need to use unorthodox methods to find children with smallpox in India?
  • Why was the campaign to eradicate polio different?
  • What are the takeaways from the history of fighting smallpox and polio most relevant for dealing with the coronavirus today?

Lesson Procedure

  • In the fight against COVID-19, what are the lessons that policy makers didn’t seem to learn from the past?
  • Is it ever acceptable for intelligence organizations to use humanitarian operations as a cover story for their secret activities? Do the ends (gaining crucial intelligence) justify the means (reducing social trust)?
  • Based on what you’ve learned, will the U.S. be better prepared to confront the next pandemic?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Coronavirus: Lessons From Past Epidemics"Retro Report 
“Chasing Cures for Deadly Scourges, and Getting in our Own Way”Retro Report 
Audio Interview: "Successes and Setbacks in Disease Eradication"WNYC 

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Skill 2.C: Explain the significance of a source’s point of view, purpose, and historical situation.

Theme 6: America in The World (WOR).

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com