Amy L. Fairchild, David Merritt Johns, and Kavita Sivaramakrishnan: A Brief History of Panic

tags: NYT, Amy L. Fairchild, David Merritt Johns, Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, public health, panic, history of emotions



Amy L. Fairchild is a professor and the author, most recently, of “Searching Eyes: Privacy, the State, and Disease Surveillance in America.” David Merritt Johns is a journalist and doctoral student. Kavita Sivaramakrishnan is an assistant professor and author of “Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab.” All are with the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

In September of 1873, United States Senator J.R. West of Louisiana received a telegram from his home state whose terse lines spoke of abject desperation:

The people are panic-stricken. All that could have left. The poor are nearly all on our hands; no money in the city treasury. All pecuniary aid will be thankfully received. Fever increasing.

(Signed) Samuel Levy, Mayor...

...Much more recently, a very different disease panic struck the nation: earlier this month news outlets reported that the country is in the grip of three emerging flu or flulike epidemics. “I think we’re right on the cusp of a major flu season, and there’s going to be some panic, unfortunately,” warned one infectious disease specialist. Emergency rooms were mobbed with sick patients. New York State and the City of Boston declared public health emergencies. “The entire country is already in somewhat of a panic about its fevers and runny noses,” asserted New York magazine. “People are starting to panic because of all the news reports,” said the public health director of Natick, Mass.

This winter’s flu scare hardly compares to the panics of the 19th century. Perhaps we have forgotten what a cataclysmic panic looks like. This welcome state of panic amnesia is a credit to our watchful health departments, which for the past 150 years have taken up the difficult task of both disease and panic prevention. But even as health officials sought to manage an “excited and terrified public mind” with swift intervention and precise information, they helped to transform panic into an elusive culprit capable of taking on different guises, of moving in new circles....




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