Speed Reads

History Lesson

Deadly pandemics usually feature denial from leaders, often prioritizing money, historians say

The COVID-19 "plague," as President Trump likes to call it, is caused by a new coronavirus. But viral pandemics and deadly plagues aren't new. And neither is initially pretending the disease won't affect your region, or prematurely declaring victory.

"A century ago, the Spanish flu epidemic's second wave was far deadlier than its first, in part because authorities allowed mass gatherings from Philadelphia to San Francisco," The Associated Press reports in an article about the "growing dread" health experts feel about "an all-but-certain second wave of deaths and infections that could force governments to clamp back down." In the U.S., the first wave hasn't yet crested.

"Almost every epidemic you can think of, the first reaction of any government is to say, 'No, no, it's not here. We haven't got it,'" British historian and pandemic researcher Richard Evans tells NPR. "Or 'it's only mild' or 'it's not going to have a big effect.'" In nearly every case, the government was dead wrong, Evans said. NPR looked at the example he laid out in his 1987 book about the 1892 cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany, which killed about 10,000 of the port city's 800,000 residents. NPR summarized some key points:

The German city-state was run by merchant families who put trade and economy above residents' welfare. ... Hamburg's leaders claimed cholera was spread by an invisible vapor no government could hope to prevent. But in August 1892, the excrement of a Russian migrant ill with cholera ended up in the Elbe River, which the city drew on for its municipal water. ...

Hamburg's government waited six days after discovering that people were dying from cholera to tell anyone. By then, thousands were ill. ... A year after the cholera outbreak, Hamburg's fed-up citizenry voted their incompetent businessmen leaders out of office. They replaced the merchants with leaders who belonged to the Social Democrats, a working-class party that prioritized science and health over profit. [NPR]

Merchants were also blamed in the Great Plague of Marseille, the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Western Europe

Luckily, science has come a long way in the past 130 years. Politics? Maybe not.