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Medical Historian Says Pandemics Are 'Looking Glasses' For Societies

Pandemics like the coronavirus "serve like looking glasses" that reflect society's vulnerabilities, author and Yale medical historian Frank Snowden says.
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Pandemics like the coronavirus "serve like looking glasses" that reflect society's vulnerabilities, author and Yale medical historian Frank Snowden says.

In his book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Yale medical historian Frank Snowden explores how, for centuries, disease outbreaks have transformed societies across the globe.

Pandemics "serve like looking glasses" that reveal societies' flaws — and their commitments — Snowden said on NPR's Morning Edition.

Take cholera. When the disease swept Paris in the 19th century — an epidemic that killed some 20,000 Parisians — the fear fueled repression of the working class. Not only did they represent a political and economic threat to the more powerful, they were now also a health threat, Snowden said.

But it also paved the way for the sanitary revolution. The reform movement, pioneered in Great Britain, brought public health infrastructure, like sewage systems, drainage, and the efficient delivery of clean water to industrial cities.

Right now, it's the COVID-19 pandemic that's testing our health and character.

It's clear that the outbreaks are disproportionately affecting certain populations, including communities of color, those lacking health insurance and poor people.

As far as society's response to its impacts, only time will tell, Snowden says.

"We're waiting to see whether, in fact, part of the coronavirus' impact will be to encourage us to take a closer look at our society, to right some of those inequities and to address the causes that enabled our vulnerabilities to be exploited by this virus," he says.

Snowden was researching in Rome when the coronavirus spread to Italy and decided to stay to write about Italians' response.

Interview Highlights

On Rome's response to the coronavirus outbreak

The local Rome newspaper, Il Messaggero — or The Messenger — said that this was the first time in three millennia that the people of Rome had ever been obedient. ... And although there's a lot of suffering, people do actually accept that the only weapon that there is is social distancing and that the lockdown is the only way that we'll all get through this.

On how pandemics are a test of a society

They're very, very interesting to study because one of the things that they do is they serve like looking glasses in which societies see their own reflection. They reflect our deepest worries and concerns about our own mortality, about our attitudes towards religion and God. What is our consent to authorities and how far do we trust them? What are our commitments to our families, our friends, our neighbors? So I do believe that this is a series of events that really shows what the real commitments of society actually are.

On how the American response to the coronavirus pandemic is different from other countries

America is experiencing this disease differently from the way that Italy, for example, is. There has been more trouble obtaining the kind of compliance that the Roman newspaper was so proud of, because America has a fragmented system in which you have 50 state authorities with all of the governors saying each a different thing. And on top of that, you have the federal authorities saying yet another thing. And we have the president contradicting the World Health Organization. ...

So there are all of these factors that you don't see in the European Union, where you have a unified message. And I think that's created a different experience entirely of the disease.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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