From a contemporary perspective, the current COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly an extraordinary event, but historically speaking pandemics are periodically recurring phenomena and intimately connected with socio-economic processes of globalisation. Therefore, history may serve as a backdrop for coming to terms with the present, by comparing current challenges with previous events that are both sufficiently similar and sufficiently different. In this article, the COVID-19 crisis will be assessed from a humanities perspective, using a pandemic drama entitled Children of the Sun (written by Russian novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky in 1905) as a critical mirror. In Gorky’s play, the pandemic as a disruptive event reveals a number of tensions and divides, between science and society first of all, but also between socio-economic classes and subcultures, which become interconnected through globalisation but evolve at an uneven pace. Thus, Gorky’s drama addresses a number of themes that are still relevant for COVID-19 controversies, such as the relationship between basic and applied research, global competition and vaccine development, science and suspicion, and the socio-economic unevenness between the global North and the global South.