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The Invisible Killers

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  • Frank M. Snowden, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Yale University Press, 2019.
    Mark Honigsbaum, The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris, Hurst Publishers, 2019.

MILAN – In 1969, the US surgeon general, William H. Stewart, told Congress that it was time “to close the books on infectious diseases” and “declare the war against pestilence won.” Antibiotics, vaccines, and widespread advances in sanitation were making the world healthier than ever. Within a few years, the medical schools at Harvard and Yale actually closed their infectious-disease departments. By then, polio, typhoid, cholera, and even measles had essentially been eradicated, at least in the West.

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    But triumphalism was not only premature; it was dangerously foolhardy. The HIV/AIDS epidemic broke out in the United States just a decade later, and never has been vanquished. Then, following a short lull in the 1990s, came SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and avian and swine flu, to name just a few of the outbreaks so far this century. Though most of these new diseases have primarily afflicted the poorest parts of the world, they should have made clear that the war on microbes was far from over.

    Nonetheless, a sense of invulnerability has prevailed in the West. It was assumed that even if epidemics had not been consigned to history, they posed a risk only to geographically and economically distant societies. The novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China in December has shattered this illusion, showing once again that novel pathogens are equal-opportunity killers.

    After initially deceiving ourselves that COVID-19 would remain just another Asian health crisis, the entire world is now grappling with a runaway pandemic. Suddenly, public-health authorities everywhere are trying to flatten the contagion curve with quarantines, travel bans, and unprecedented society-wide lockdowns, while governments and central banks try desperately to flatten the recession curve with unprecedented stimulus packages.

    Disease and Denial

    One lesson is already clear: Even in the richest, most advanced economies, humans are still humans, which means they are vulnerable to new microbial threats, particularly zoonotic infections (diseases that spread from non-human animals) resulting from natural evolution and facilitated by human activities. As two recent histories of pandemics show, it is always only a matter of time before a virus, bacterium, or parasitic organism makes the leap from some non-human species to our own.

    Ebola, for example, came from chimpanzees, just as bubonic plague emerged from rats and COVID-19 (most likely) from bats. And, in addition to worrying about new microbes, we also must worry about older ones. Owing to antigenic mutations, malaria and tuberculosis, once almost defeated, have reemerged in drug-resistant forms.

    In Epidemics and Society, the Yale University historian Frank M. Snowden shows why the West’s complacency was never justified. Far from being the exclusive preserve of “backward” societies, deadly disease outbreaks are, if anything, a negative byproduct of human progress. By altering ecosystems and erasing natural frontiers, humans have continuously exposed themselves to germs, viruses, and bacteria that evolve to exploit their vulnerabilities. The push of economic development has brought more opportunities for humans and animals to intermingle, and........

    © Project Syndicate