(Roughly) Daily

“There’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress, and that’s pandemic preparedness”*…

 

795px-Emergency_hospital_during_Influenza_epidemic,_Camp_Funston,_Kansas_-_NCP_1603

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston, 1918

 

As we wonder at the ultimate impacts of the novel coronavirus, we might look to history and the lessons of earlier contagions, as University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley did in 2016…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife (also a law professor) and I wrapped up the final session of a seminar that we co-taught called Contagion. We wanted to offer an introduction to the outbreaks of infectious disease that have reshaped American life and law.

The class was one of Michigan Law’s “at home mini-seminars,” which meant we hosted a dozen students at our home over the course of six evening sessions. Really more of a book club than a formal class, we focused on a different disease each time we met: cholera, Spanish flu, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.

We also drank beer, which makes death and disease more tolerable.

The class was a hoot. And it had a surprising coherence. Every disease provokes its own unique dread and its own complex public reaction, but themes recurred across outbreaks.

  1. Governments are typically unprepared, disorganized, and resistant to taking steps necessary to contain infectious diseases, especially in their early phases.
  2. Local, state, federal, and global governing bodies are apt to point fingers at one another over who’s responsible for taking action. Clear lines of authority are lacking.
  3. Calibrating the right governmental response is devilishly hard. Do too much and you squander public trust (Swine flu), do too little and people die unnecessarily (AIDS).
  4. Public officials are reluctant to publicize infections for fear of devastating the economy.
  5. Doctors rarely have good treatment options. Nursing care is often what’s needed most. Medical professionals of all kinds work themselves to the bone in the face of extraordinary danger.
  6. In the absence of an effective treatment, the public will reach for unscientific remedies.
  7. No matter what the route of transmission or the effectiveness of quarantine, there’s a desire to physically separate infected people.
  8. Victims of the disease are often thought to deserve the affliction, especially when those victims are mainly from marginalized groups.
  9. We plan, to the extent we plan at all, for the last pandemic. We don’t do enough to plan for the next one.
  10. Historical memory is short. When diseases fall from the headlines, the public forgets and preparation falters.

Not every one of those themes was present for every disease; the doughboys who died of the Spanish flu, for example, were not thought to deserve their fate. But the themes were persistent enough over time to establish a pattern…

For a list of the books that Bagley and the group considered, visit the post quoted above: “Contagion.”

For a measured (but still deeply concerning) assessment of the potential impact of the coronavirus, see The Economist‘s leader.  But lest we leap to the assumption that the stock market is an augur (of either depth or duration of impact) see “How to Think About the Plummeting Stock Market.”  For a much deeper dive into the historical antecedents of our current quandary, see “Pandemics and Markets” at Jamie Catherwood‘s Investor Amnesia (“We’ve been here before”).

Finally, there’s been much written about the ways in which Xi’s handling of the crisis in China might provoke a backlash against him and the Party, both within China and around the world.  But one might also keep an eye on Iran, where the government’s handling of the coronavirus is leading observers to wonder if this (coming as it does in the midst of severe internal tensions, aggravated by the economic pressure of sanctions) could be a “Chernobyl moment” for the regime; see “How Iran Became a New Epicenter in the Coronavirus Outbreak.”  And then, of course, there’s the potential political fallout in the United States.  See also the always-insightful Bruce Mehlman‘s “Washington in the Time of Corona.”

* Bill Gates, at a 2018 conference on epidemics hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine (Here are Gate’s more current– but consistent– thoughts on “How to respond to COVID-19.”

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As we take precautions, we might spare a thought for Robert Hooke; he died on this date in 1703.  A natural philosopher and polymath, Hooke was a virtuoso scientist whose scope of research ranged widely, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, architecture, and naval technology.  He discovered the law of elasticity, known as Hooke’s law, and invented the balance spring for clocks.  He served as the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, London; and after the Great Fire of London (1666), he served as Chief Surveyor and helped rebuild the city.  He also invented or improved meteorological instruments such as the barometer, anemometer, and hygrometer.

But relevantly to the item above, Hooke was a pioneer in microscopy.  His Micrographia, (1665) was a book describing observations made with microscopes (and telescopes), as well as some original work in biology.  Indeed, Hooke coined the term cell for describing biological organisms, a term suggested to him by the resemblance of plant cells to cells of a honeycomb.

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Hooke’s microscope, from an engraving in Micrographia [source]

 

Written by LW

March 3, 2020 at 1:01 am

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