Here’s the wild part, the most 2020 thing about 2020: This schism – this conflict between public health and private well-being, between personal freedoms and community gain – is as old as pandemics. The germ of the idea was in fact the idea of the germ.
In the mid-1800s, Doctors and scientists were beginning to come to the long-lasting idea that illnesses could be caused by invisible little creatures that leaped from person to person – a “contagium animatum” as 16th century thinkers put it. They didn’t know what viruses or bacteria were, but they knew something was carrying the disease.
The contagionists had their counterpart: scientists who, in 1948, researcher Edwin Ackerknecht called “Anticontagionists”. Oh, they believed that some diseases spread by an agent, from person to person. Smallpox and syphilis, maybe. These were contagious. But they weren’t epidemics– yellow fever, cholera, or plague, things that seem to spread seasonally, or in specific places, or only among specific types of people. No one knew how. They knew nothing about food and waterborne pathogens, the differences between viruses and bacteria, surface “fomites” that transmitted disease in some cases, while exhaled droplets and aerosols might in others. Don’t you have any of that? Well, maybe it was something atmospheric – a cloud of disease, a miasma, maybe even the “filth” of poverty and pre-sanitation towns. (It is telling that scientists are still arguing over the idea of a airborne lively infection, even today.)
But the anti-contagionists knew one thing for sure. These three great epidemics – with typhus sometimes too – were the things that had, since the 14th century, prompted governments to take population-wide measures to control them. It meant quarantines, travel restrictions, business closures – what we might call lockdowns today. And that drove the anti-contagionists crazy. They said the locks, then like now, were bad for business; the losses suffered as a result exceeded those caused by the epidemic itself. In the midst of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, anything that inhibited business was an inhibition of freedom itself. “The quarantines meant, for the growing class of merchants and industrialists, a source of losses, a limitation on expansion, a weapon of bureaucratic control which it was no longer willing to tolerate”, Ackerknecht wrote. “Contagionism, through its associations with the old bureaucratic powers, would be suspect to all liberals, trying to minimize state interference. The anti-contagionists were therefore not just scientists, they were reformers, fighting for the freedom of the individual and of commerce against the shackles of despotism.
Further, saying that the disease stems from a lack of sanitation and poor hygiene, the pro-dirt contingent sometimes calmly and sometimes loudly associated the disease with ethnicity and socio-economic status. It was an immunological social Darwinism; if the poor and non-whites got sick first, or more often, it proved to some “reformers” that these people were making bad personal choices (rather than indicating a failure of the systems around them). With this in mind, identifying dirt as a generator of epidemics paved the way for the hygiene movement, showed the moral and physical superiority of non-poor whites, and provided a rationale for “slum cleaning” and zoning laws. residential. Cross the red lines and you see not only the geography of racism, but also a sanitary cordon.
To be fair, like a historian Notes, the (paltry) science of miasma suggested that quarantines would actually cause epidemic disease worst, because they amplified the confinement and the bad conditions that spread the disease. And if you read “miasma” as “the conditions that cause a disease to spread”, well, that’s what I’m trying to make as well, so… yeah. These are good faith scientific arguments that have also turned out to be politically motivated economic and philosophical arguments, tinged with racism.