Book Review: New Pandemics, Old Politics by Alex de Waal

“We are at war against an invisible enemy. While our doctors and nurses combat the disease at the frontline in hospitals, while our scientists seek the cures and vaccines in their laboratories, the population must make sacrifices on the home front. We should trust our government while we forgo liberties and livelihoods. The pandemic will end with a medical magic bullet that vanquishes the pathogen. Then we will return to our way of life and be safe.”

I bet, after reading that quote, that you’re thinking “That Boris Johnson was trying too hard to be Churchill.” Or “Typical Trump, making up nonsense – again.” But neither of them actually said that. In fact, no one has ever said that – directly. But politicians have said something like this every time a new disease threatens their people in the past 200 years.

What this actual quote is from is the introduction of Alex de Waal’s New Pandemics, Old Politics. A book, bought on by recent viral events, that explores this “war on disease” narrative, how it came about and its flaws, which has been proven deadly.

It’s easy to forget that until the mid-19th century, the idea that diseases were caused by the migration of microorganisms was unknown and, as a result, disease was seen as unpredictable as the weather, therefore something in control of the whim of gods.

But this changed, as the modern nation state came to be in Europe. A concept defined by war and conquest. You see where this is going.

Alex provides a 2020 perspective over previous pandemics, revealing that the issues caused by lockdowns and victim-blaming are not new. He provides this quote from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), about what happened in London during the plague in 1665.

“[I]t was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment, they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and liable to infection; and if they were spoken to, their answer would bee, ‘I must trust to God for that; if I am taken, then I am provided for, and there is an end of me,’ and the like. Or thus, ‘Why, what must I do? I can’t starve. I had as good have the plague as perish for what. I have no work; what could I do? I must do this or beg.”

Sound familiar?

This book highlights a conclusion I have come up when reading about history – human beings behave the same way throughout history. Give a stone age hunter-gatherer a smartphone and, eventually, he/she will be posting selfies and ranting about things to whoever contacts them through it. With that observation in mind, it makes sense when people talk about “history repeating itself.”

However, this “repeating of history” gets chiselled by new knowledge and experience, altering the outcome. The waves of cholera that ravaged Europe in the 19th century, ended with germ theory and the “war on disease” metaphor, made hip by Robert Koch of Germany. For decades scientists were confident they can “conquer” disease. And then influenza broke out among the soldiers fighting the final skirmishes of World War I, forcing those scientists to realize that they were a long way off from “conquering” disease. This led to more research, eventually leading to the crowning achievement of 20th century medicine – the eradication of smallpox. Then, HIV/AIDS flared up. This time, preventive measures were the focus, as it proved hard to spot and treat (initially). It prevented some later epidemics, but, soon the top-down “war on disease” apporched returned when Bush declared his “war on terror.” However, the grass-roots bottom-up approach to dealing with (and preventing) disease evolved quietly… until (hopefully) now.

But still, people are people. As the book highlights, the concerns people have with lockdowns in 2020 are the same as those Londoners Daniel Defoe wrote about in 1722 had.

New Pandemics, Old Politics by Alex de Waal is available now in hardback, paperback and as an e-book, published by Polity Press.

Review by Gordon Wallace

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