How Will COVID-19 Change the World? Historian Frank Snowden on Epidemics From the Black Death to Now

Historians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, medical history

Pandemics, like revolution, war and economic crises, are key determinants of historic change. We look at the history of epidemics, from Black Death to smallpox to COVID-19, and discuss how the coronavirus will reshape the world with leading medical historian Frank Snowden, author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.” He is a professor emeritus at Yale University who has been in Italy since the pandemic began, and himself survived a COVID-19 infection.


AMY GOODMAN: Professor Frank Snowden, it’s wonderful to have you with us, albeit from Rome, where you’re under lockdown. What an amazing history yourself, as you are an expert in pandemics. In Italy, you survived the cholera outbreak half a century ago, and now, though getting COVID-19, you have survived this coronavirus pandemic. Can you talk about those two experiences?

FRANK SNOWDEN: Oh, certainly. Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you.

And the cholera outbreak was in 1973. It’s one of the reasons that I was — I took up an interest in the field, because the sorts of events that I was witnessing as a young man were quite extraordinary. They included such things as — Naples was the epicenter. Rome was nonetheless affected, but Naples was the center. And cars with Naples license plates were being stoned in the center of Rome. And there are open-air markets in Rome, and the vendors there were having their stalls overturned, and they were being attacked by crowds as being guilty of spreading the disease.

At the same time, Italy, at this time, let’s remember, was the seventh industrial power in the world, in the 1970s. And the minister of health of this power went on television. And what he did was to say that the microbe that causes the cholera is exquisitely sensitive to acid, so all you need to do is to take a lemon and squeeze just a bit of it on your raw muscles, and then you’ll be perfectly safe. And, of course, if you believe that, you’re likely to believe just about anything. And so, it was this sort of event that caught my attention.

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