The Past Repeats Itself: Epidemics Then and Now

I spent the past few years trying to find out everything I could about disease and the impact of epidemics on society. For each of the outbreaks featured in my book (and for some that didn’t make the cut), I did my best to bring together every tiny piece of information or perspective that would help me better understand what how the crisis unfolded. Over the last few months, weeks, and days, I have felt an eerie sense of dej√° vu.

Cycle of an epidemic. The narratives of epidemics seem to follow an Aristotealean plot structure, with the story shifting into crisis mode, the escalation–marked by fear and panic, and then finally a resolution, marked by reassuring promises and optimism before eventually returning to the new normal. It is both intriguing and disturbing how states have varied on their own perception of the current stage.

Innovation in creating transforming spaces into hospitals. As cases outnumber hospital beds, public health authorities have had to get creative, turning houses and other spaces into makeshift medical facilities. In 1944, when a polio outbreak overtook the town of Hickory, NC, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis helped transform a summer camp into a hospital in just three days. It was heralded as the “Miracle of Hickory.” As exemplified in this story about the Comfort ship in New York, public health authorities are already seeking facilities that could potentially become treatment centers.

Prejudice, Stigma, and Blame. Fear and uncertainly lead to misconceptions about disease origin and transmission. Too many times in the past and now, people blame a race, culture, and/or place for somehow “bringing” or causing an outbreak. I’m intentionally not going to give historic or current examples here. Stop profiling and recognize that contagions have always emerged. Focus on what unites us. We need global cooperation, not racist misinformation.

Opportunists Capitalizing on Crisis. Unfortunately, epidemics also bring out the unscrupulous, those trying to make money off of panic, fear, and tragedy. Physicians and laypeople alike used to concoct their own “medicine” and advertise it in the local papers.

From The Federal Gazette, October 2, 1793, p. 2

Today’s regulation makes it more difficult for people to market their products as “cures.” However, we can certainly lump the hand sanitizer misers and TP hoarders selling their overpriced stockpiles into this category.

Emergence of Quack Remedies & Myths. On a related note, the profiteers are only successful because this is a vulnerable time. Without scientifically-backed cures (and sometimes with them), people have always come up with their own ideas about disease, which is exacerbated during epidemics. Past “cures” for various contagions have included smoking cigars (even for children), gunpowder, turpentine, enemas, hot air balloon rides, drinking blood, and onions. Some of these are not too far off of the COVID-19 “remedies.” No, drinking salt water will not kill the virus, despite the claims of a popular social media post.

Unsung Heroes. The good of humanity to pitch in and help. On the bright side, epidemics also bring out the helpers. Health professionals, clergy, volunteers, and others step up to assist those in need, risking their own lives so that others can receive treatment, food, clothing, and/or comfort. Notably, numerous members of the Free African Society worked tirelessly in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Many succumbed to the disease themselves.

We are already seeing unsung heroes in action. In as much as we recognize health professionals, we also need to praise food program distributors, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers and others who keep society together. It is and will be the helpers that push us through.