Pandemics Make the Most of the Opportunities Societies Create, Says Expert
From his Rome quarantine, Frank M. Snowden, pandemics expert and history of medicine professor emeritus at Yale University, spoke to Calcalist on the lessons that coronavirus could teach us
Fate had it that Calcalist’s conversation with Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale University, took place while he was in Italy, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Snowden, an expert on the history of epidemics, is quarantined in Rome. According to him, there is nothing coincidental about pandemics. "Epidemiological diseases make the most of the opportunities societies create for them," he said. "Pandemics aren't random or arbitrary, but reflect who we are. They show us how we interact socially and teach us about our beliefs and moral priorities."In addition to his expertise in pandemics, Snowden, 73, is also an expert on the history of modern Italy. He has written seven books, most of which combine his two main topics of interest. His 1995 book, "Naples in the Times of Cholera," is one example. "The Conquest of Malaria: Italy, 1900-1962," published in 2006, is another.
In another twist of irony, his latest book, "Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present," came out just one month before the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. In this book, Snowden examines how pandemics molded societies and economies, accelerated social change, deepened racism and nationalism, inspired art and formed beliefs.According to Snowden, pandemics were the driving force behind the birth of the modern state as it required communities to organize themselves in order to form civil authorities to oversee policing and health. For him, any difference in the reaction of countries and people to the Covid-19 crisis reveals valuable information, whether it be Italians singing together from their balconies, Americans racing to purchase guns, or Israelis stocking up on eggs. Snowden believes pandemics uncover our greatest anxieties and fears, as well as display the human spirit at its best. "Pandemics always test our commitment to human values as well as our attitude towards the most vulnerable parts of our society and they also raise religious questions. When something violent, new and scary which kills a lot of people emerges we want to figure it out and understand how something like this could happen," he said. Pandemics, Snowden said, attack our social structures at their weakest spots. "During the industrial revolution, people were cramped in city centers like London, Paris, and Philadelphia before they had sewage and clean water. These societies were vulnerable to fecal-oral route diseases and were badly affected by cholera," he said. “This led to dramatic changes in the way cities were built, and while there was a hope that globalization could help reduce epidemics, life in the 21st century has proven to be perfect for the dissemination of Covid-19. Urbanization and massive cities being interconnected by planes have created a new world that is vulnerable to viruses that are quickly transmitted through the air. SARS was only a pale preview of the set of challenges we now face," he said.