From Cholera To Seat Belts: History Of Americans Reacting To Public Health Messages

Historians in the News
tags: public health, COVID-19


AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: We've talked a lot on this program about the dangers of conspiracy theories and political resistance to the public health guidance on COVID-19.

DAVID ROSNER: This goes back to our very founding.

CORNISH: David Rosner should know. He's a medical historian and co-director at the Center for the History of Ethics of Public Health. That's at Columbia University.

ROSNER: There are moments when a kind of deep-seated American tradition of fearing government and fearing authorities and fearing professionals is brought to the fore.

CORNISH: Rosner says this was also coupled with our country's religiosity. Disease was considered God's judgment on society.

ROSNER: During the 1830s, we experienced one of our first national epidemics. The disease was cholera, and it swept into this country from Europe. We watched it with kind of our casualness because we believed that unlike Europeans, we in the United States were immune to the disease largely because we're a moral people. The idea that disease is a reflection of God's judgment of us individually and of us as a community is long-standing in American history.

CORNISH: And that meant even when it started to affect populations in the United States, the same kind of thinking prevailed, right?

ROSNER: Absolutely. There was barely a response on the part of the government to the disease other than to set up what they called temporary boards of health because they believed the disease was temporary. We told our population to go and pray, to go to church, to have a national day of prayer rather than actually to take strong preventive measures. We thought that it would pass because, obviously, we're a moral nation.

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