In war-torn 17th-century Europe, the epidemics caused by typhus, the “microbe of misery”, were the aftermath of conflict and chaos. In the 19th century, cholera pandemics fell on lines of tension that had formed amid growing inequalities both within and between societies.
And like a radioactive tracer, this COVID pandemic has given us insight into our own flaws and shortcomings and the cultural polarization that makes it impossible to achieve societal consensus. It also weakened our instincts of obligation to one another. We have now learned, the hard way, that an almost miraculous technical intervention to stop the disease is not enough. It will take both scientific progress and awareness in our political life for us to regain control.
We are feeling the effects of a collapse that happened long before a new coronavirus passed from bats to humans. I hadn’t really seen it that way until I returned to the classroom this fall.
I always start my course on the history of ideas on justice with a debate on a topical issue. This year, I started the semester by having my class discuss the 1905 Supreme Court case, Jacobson v Massachusetts. The plaintiff, Jacobson, claimed that the state of Massachusetts was violating his personal freedom by requiring vaccination against smallpox. Smallpox had for the most part been wiped out from the United States, but when it periodically threatened cities and states (Cambridge, Mass., In this case) sometimes made vaccination mandatory.