If anyone should have been preparing for it – this surreal and tragic phase of the pandemic and the derangement of our collective response – it might be me. I am both a native of the Red State and a historian who studies infectious diseases.
In 2017, I wrote that “the risk of a ‘big’, a biological event that threatens to shatter our public health infrastructure and shake the foundations of the world order, is there, hidden.” That same year, I began to write a global history of infectious diseases from our primate origins to… SARS-1 and the Ebola virus. Early versions of the book warned that a new pandemic was inevitable in the future, whether tomorrow or in another lifetime.
Then COVID-19 happened, and much of what happened seems oddly familiar to a history student.
The “kung flu” slander and Wuhan’s blame game? Finding scapegoats for epidemics is as old as time, from the Black Death to the AIDS crisis.
Leaders who brazenly project an alternate reality at unfathomable cost? Read the captivating story of the delusional plague response of 1630-1631 in Milan, a city with perhaps the most advanced public health system in the world at the time, but which ultimately lost over 40% of its population during the epidemic.
Private interests that shamelessly peddle disinformation? The history of British mercantilist lobbying against quarantine seems perfectly contemporary. Resistance to medical science? Since the introduction of smallpox inoculation and then vaccination, a strange alliance of religious activism and pseudoscience has worked to stir up fears and doubts about our best tools to protect human health. Dewormer for livestock? Just a new take on the venerable tradition of quackery. It is difficult to be original in the annals of human madness.
Yet a complete immersion in the chronicles of past illnesses has not really prepared me for the baffling of our social response. The disorienting experience of going through a pandemic was certainly made more vivid because not only do I live in ruby red Oklahoma, but I was born and raised here, and I’m a patriotic Okie. I love this place and its people. But I have to admit that it has been a struggle to understand this alienating failure of the community.
Family and friends, otherwise reasonable people, refuse to make the small sacrifice in the form of a mask to ensure the safety of others. We’re sending our kids back to school, in a state where the Delta variant is raging and the legislature has banned mask warrants. In my university, we have to implore students, professors and staff to wear masks. Vaccinations that should have been our technical salvation have become polarizing – and strong federal actions to expand vaccination requirements are sure to harden the divisions as well.
The thing about the really nefarious new diseases throughout history, the “big ones”, is that they seem to infect everything, find and expose all of our other social pathologies. The smallpox pandemics that ravaged Indigenous peoples of the New World were not caused by a large seed without context – rather, the brutal dislocation of conquest worked hand in hand with the disease to destroy complex American civilizations.
In war-ravaged 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 new 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 been largely eliminated from the United States, but when it periodically threatened cities and states (Cambridge, Mass., In this case) sometimes made vaccination mandatory. The arguments on both sides are over a century old, but you still hear them every time you turn on the wired news in debates over “liberty” and the common good, now in reaction to the Biden administration’s measures to expand immunization requirements.
In Jacobson, a 7-2 majority upheld the mandatory vaccination law as a reasonable application of the state’s police powers. The decision is not only an important constitutional precedent; the majority opinion written by Justice John Marshall Harlan is also philosophical and eloquent. “There are many constraints that each person is necessarily subject to for the common good,” he wrote. “On any other basis, organized society could not exist with the safety of its members. Society founded on the rule that everyone is a law for themselves would soon be faced with disorder and anarchy.
The disease may have changed, but the underlying issues haven’t changed, and my students’ reaction seemed to measure how much the threads that unite our sense of the “common good” have frayed.
At least half the class instinctively sided with Jacobson. And even more surprisingly, they did it in a thoughtful way. There were no budding demagogues, no wacky conspiracy theories, no challenging motives on the other side. They argued for the autonomy of the individual to make decisions about their body. They argued that putting too much power in the hands of the state was dangerous. As a teacher, I was happy with the substance and civility of the debate. But as a historian of disease, I was disheartened.
For over a century, we have lived in a society guided by the Jacobson decision, although most of us have never heard of the case. The immunization schedule has quietly become part of the fabric of our lives. But it never felt like a compromise between freedom and health – and certainly not like a choice between Republican and Democratic allegiance, the Red State and the Blue State. The government approved the shooting. The family doctor advised and administered them. With the cool and visceral terrors of polio, few people have asked questions.
This is what you have done, as a parent and as a citizen. People got vaccinated not because they took rational arguments fully into account, but because it was part of the implicit social contract, quietly rooted in structures of trust and an understanding of what we owe each other. to others.
This piece of fabric has come undone.
The tribalization of vaccines and masks happened so quickly that it caught most of us off guard. Federal pressure has become necessary to bring the pandemic under control, but it also ensures that public health policy will remain acrimoniously partisan. It will take work, leadership and empathy to put the pieces back together, neighborhood by neighborhood. This pandemic is far from over. Eventually, the virus will have no more victims, and we don’t know what will happen. Maybe we can get by, but only at unnecessary human cost. But “disorder and anarchy” will persist.
Kyle Harper is Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma and author of forthcoming Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.