Alexandre White, Ph.D. examines the social effects of infectious epidemic outbreaks in both historical and contemporary settings as well as the global mechanisms that produce responses to outbreak. As part of the departments of the history of medicine and sociology, White offers his perspective on the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons we can learn from historic outbreaks.
Has anything similar to COVID-19 taken place in History?
The 1918 influenza pandemic looks very similar in a lot of ways. In that flu, however, most of the deaths were seen among young, healthy populations and not contained to mostly older adults like today’s COVID-19 outbreak. That being said, a lot of the social distancing measures, like school closures and the limiting of mass gatherings may look quite familiar to the measures used during the 1918 pandemic. During that pandemic, health systems were strained due to the devastating effects of World War I. With COVID-19 we are seeing again how health systems can be pushed to the limit by a pandemic threat.
Do you have historical examples of border closures working?
Border closures are often over aggressive, as we saw in the case of the West African Ebola epidemic. Border closures are very rarely successful at preventing disease spread. They can in very rare instances have some success at limiting epidemic spread, but only when the justification for those closures are linked to real and verifiable health data. Closures seldom work and can divert important funds from other critical health responses. A decision to close the borders should only come after all other avenues, such as increased screening and monitoring have been exhausted. A rush to shut borders can have very negative effects on economic trade and also produce widespread xenophobia, stigma and contempt for the country being closed out. In Surat, India in 1994, a relatively small epidemic of plague led to significant border closures to Indian goods and travel in the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. This had very drastic economic effects, greatly reducing the GDP of India as a result of closing borders. It is a double-edged sword.
How is the coronavirus outbreak changing the world?
Rising levels of xenophobia and financial crises are emerging as part of the global response to coronavirus. It could also have massive effects on political elections and economic recovery. I think we might see particular industries like air travel drastically reshaped by a prolonged epidemic. The effects of this epidemic are going to linger long after the biomedical effects pass away.
What can we learn from past outbreaks?
Epidemics amplify animosity in people, especially against those who are most marginalized in society. But, outbreaks should also be a powerful force for recognizing our shared connections and our responsibilities to each other. If you feel sick, stay home from work and wash your hands more often, not just for yourself, but for others around you. Maybe if we can recognize that our own personal health relies on the care and compassion of others and that others rely on us to keep them healthy, we can find common ground on all kinds of areas of social life.