History of Pandemics: "Loyalty to Authority Becomes a Virtue"

2021-02-10 The historian of science Prof. Dr Andreas Bernard has been researching the connection between medical knowledge and data organisation since the advent of the first vaccinations. While studying sources, he met old acquaintances.

The cultural scientist Andreas Bernhard sits in his office and explains something. ©Leuphana
Dealing with a pandemic always has a political and ideological side, explains Prof. Andreas Bernhard.

   

The size of the Corona virus lies in the nanometre range and it is invisible to the human eye. How do people deal with this invisible danger?
 
There is a facticity of damage caused by the virus: people get sick, suffer or even die. But this facticity has no clear origin. Compare the virus with a criminal: both can cause people to die. But the criminal has a motive and we can see it. A virus is a being without intention. That makes people uncomfortable.
 
Does this mean the virus remains as abstract for us as it was for people 300 years ago?
 
The idea of contagion has a history: until about 1870, the idea of human-to-human transmission was controversial and repeatedly rejected by medicine over long periods of time. Instead, people believed in so-called miasmas, i.e. localised centres of infection. They imagined that all people became ill there, for example in poor neighbourhoods with poor hygienic conditions. Today, we quite naturally have the idea of a virus that is transmitted by sneezing and coughing. Louis Pasteur's research or Robert Koch's discovery of the tuberculosis pathogen were milestones in understanding human-to-human transmission. So in terms of the history of science, this thinking is still quite young.
 
How did the Corona pandemic change our perceptions?
 
Epidemics, for example, always trigger new detection models. That leads to technical innovation. Similarly, during the Corona pandemic, people's attitudes towards data collection changed. Fear was redefined. An application like the Corona warning app would certainly have been unthinkable in Germany a few years ago. In the past few months, many things have changed fundamentally.
 
You are looking at a period of about 300 years. Which aspects in particular surprised you?
 
For instance, the continuity of events with regard to certain issues: the opposition to vaccination, for example, is very old. Smallpox vaccines are considered the oldest vaccines. The first protective vaccinations against smallpox in the early 18th century were rejected by clerics in particular: vaccination would contradict divine providence. In 1874, a national compulsory vaccination against smallpox was introduced in Germany. Life-reform currents of the time rejected vaccination as artificial. The body could heal itself, they said. “Querdenker” ("lateral thinkers") are therefore not a phenomenon of the 21st century.
 
Nor, unfortunately, are prejudices. Especially at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, people of Asian phenotype complained increasingly of hostility.
 
The xenophobic narrative of the imported disease is part of history: Robert Koch's thinking was strongly nationalistic, for example, and he was fond of saying about cholera or smallpox: "The plagues come from the East." In 2019/2020, we saw a China critique with the undertone: "The threat was not taken seriously by the Chinese. Economy was more important than health there, and the hygienic conditions in the markets may well leave something to be desired." This is a very old model of epidemiological xenophobia. But at some point the narrative turned, and calls for stricter rules dominated the debate around Corona - even among the left-liberal press. Surprisingly, people who consider themselves rather left-wing particularly often support the so-called Zero Covid strategy. Loyalty to authority suddenly becomes a virtue. Handling a pandemic thus always has a political and ideological side. In the second half of the 20th century, during the Cold War, the USSR, for example, presented a good way of coping with epidemics as a success of socialism. A slogan of the GDR leadership, for example, was: "Socialism is the best prophylaxis." Politicians reasoned: the West was too individualistic, that's why people there would catch the disease more often. Pandemics are also a litmus test for political programmes.
 
A particularly striking example in connection with prejudices is AIDS/HIV.
 
With HIV, transmission is almost always through intimate contact, similar to the centuries-old disease syphilis. Corona is transmitted much more fleetingly. Ultimately, I often don't know where I got infected - on the bus or perhaps in the supermarket. The different ways of infection provide a structural differentiation. With the HI virus in particular, there was initially a great deal of uncertainty about how transmission works. In the early 1980s, hysterical theories circulated: Just being in the same room with a homosexual man practically meant you were already dead. Only after medicine has the disease under control does a symbolically charged epidemic become a literal one, and the crude narratives weaken. We can observe this well by the example of smallpox: This epidemic was considered eradicated worldwide in 1980. Only then did the speculation end. At the same time, AIDS/HIV appeared. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if social media had existed forty years ago. But actually I don't want to imagine it. Because the media situation is of course also responsible for whether and how the world threatens to unravel during a pandemic.