New Pathogen, Old Politics

Pandemic is a time of confusion and disorder. By definition, the new pathogen is new to epidemiology and microbiology, and in the time it takes for science to understand the disease and its agent, we take comfort in narratives that give meaning to the event. The storyline is often old and predictable, frequently drawing on the trope of ‘war’ on disease. These narratives are crucial in determining public policy, and thereby social and political impacts. And, they demand critical political thinking that is sustained in the middle of the crisis, including examination of the limits of medical and epidemiological expertise in a time of uncertainty. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this has been a difficult issue, given the outrageous attempts to undermine science and rationality by the Trump administration and their phalanx of anti-intellectual assassins. We can advance a critical politics of the crisis by examining the history of past epidemic responses.

On April 3, 2020, the Boston Review published Alex de Waal’s “New Pathogen, Old Politics,” which takes the 1892 cholera epidemic in Hamburg as the lens with which to analyze the political, economic and medical controversies of then and now.

New Pandemics, old politics book cover, image of death\skeleton on horseback

Encouraged by the response to the Boston Review article, de Waal began writing a book with the similar title, New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two hundred years of the war on disease and its Alternatives, published by Polity Press.

The book explores how these scripts were drafted, and their consequences for politics and science in the gap between the outbreak of a new pandemic pathogen and the scientific discovery and application of what is needed for containment and cure. It examines three historic pandemics—cholera in 19th century Europe and India, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, and late-century HIV/AIDS in Africa and around the world—and the preparedness plans for ‘disease X’ over the last 25 years. The goal is to help explain what is familiar and what is unexpected in the current Covid-19 crisis. The book will make the argument for a critical perspective on the politics of pandemics and in favor of a more democratic and inclusive approach to public health.

Related research and publications

Note: for more information about WPF’s program researching Covid-19 in prisons, see Tracking COVID 19 in Detention

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