From Cholera to Coronavirus
David talks to the historian Richard Evans about the history of cholera epidemics in the 19th century and what they can teach us for today. How did contemporaries understand the spread of the disease? What impact did it have on growing demands for democracy? And who tended to get the blame - foreigners, doctors or politicians? Plus we discuss whether the political changes being driven by the current
pandemic are likely to outlast the disease itself.
Massive epidemics are a normal part of human history, even if they are infrequent.
- You can see this with the Plague, syphilis, and, in the 19th century, cholera.
Cholera hit Europe in the beginning of the 1830s, and like many epidemic diseases, it was spread through increased communications.
- The conquest of North India opened up trade routes, and that’s how cholera traveled.
- The terrifying thing was the death rate: it was 50%, much much higher than coronavirus.
When cholera hit, the response was heavily shaped by knowledge of the plague.
- ‘Quarantine’ comes from 40 days, which is the period of isolation that the medieval Venetians imposed on incoming ships.
- It took a long time for people to realize that cholera spread through water.
- Cholera struck the poor. The wealthy lived on higher ground. This led to a lot of moralizing around the disease.
Cholera spread through trade. Measures to stop it would also affect trade.
- Merchants in cities such as Hamburg suppressed the news of the spread of cholera because they were worried about the economic consequences.
- This is also a period of medicalisation. Doctors go from being on the front lines, politically, to being more or less neutral.
What is the relationship between pandemics and xenophobia?
- The Hamburg cholera epidemic of the late 19th century was clearly brought by migrants, but it didn’t lead to a significant xenophobic or anti-semitic backlash.
- But in earlier epidemics, this was not the case. For example, conspiracy theories about The Plague led to mass pogroms of Jews.
The widespread disease can trigger the possibility of social and political change.
- In Britain, the spread of cholera led to widespread criticism of the government. But a lot of the impetus for reform was short lived and died away until the next epidemic.
The impact of cholera was differential because of wealth. Coronavirus seems to strike the old.
- The vulnerability of the old is medical.
- Yet this virus still sparks conspiracy theories.
- One of the main reasons for serious epidemics is the breakdown of the state, for example, Haiti in 2010.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- Richard’s book, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910
- Richard for The Guardian about the public consequences of epidemic diseases
- Lucia tells TP about the view from Italy