This article explores a smattering of thematic questions that criss-cross the articles in this special pandemics issue; it signposts some reverberations, overlapping responses, and problematic comparisons currently (mid 2020) being made between past pandemics and the tense experiences (and projections going forward) of COVID-19 across the world. The historical pandemics covered here offer an entry point to a fruitful set of genealogies, chronologies, epidemiologies, trajectories, and imaginaries linked to a host of issues: what makes a pandemic ‘global’? What does a global history perspective bring to the table? How does examining germs and genomes shed light on imperialism as a/the pandemic driver? Where do animals, the environment, and ecology fit in and why are they so often excluded from pandemic histories? What counts as medical humanitarianism when health knowledge, know-how, and cooperation ‘from below’ are sidelined? And what came/comes first: a pandemic or a changed world?