New Pathogen, Old Politics

Why has the modern world adopted a narrative of battling epidemics, and why has this model failed?

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.

This research 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. It advances a critical perspective on the politics of pandemics and argues in favor of a more democratic and inclusive approach to public health.


New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two hundred years of the war on disease and its Alternatives (Polity Press, 2021) by Alex de Waal.

New Pathogens, Old Politics (April 2, 2020) by Alex de Waal, Boston Review.

Don’t expect the coronavirus epidemic in the US to bring down President Trump (March 18, 2020) by Alex de Waal, The Conversation.

Bracing for the Post-pandemic Storm (April 22, 2020) Alex de Waal joins Alan Boswell, host International Crisis Group‘s podcast The Horn.

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