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While digging potatoes this afternoon, I was listening to Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to Aids by Samuel Kline Cohn Jr. (2018). My ears perked up at the following item:
…Instead, these laws imposed restrictions dividing populations by locking houses and imposing other internal quarantines and barriers against any wishing to enter from the outside, as with [various examples too hard to transcribe]. In 1399, Milan ordered the fumigation of homes and destruction of property. As Ann Carmichael argued almost 30 years ago, plague controls became social controls. [Emphasis is mine]
Is it really possible that epidemic controls can end up that way? Could it still happen in our enlightened age?
It’s not a consistent theme of Cohn’s book, or even a major theme, so maybe I should check out some of Carmichael’s work. I found her c.v. here: https://indiana.academia.edu/AnnCarmichael/CurriculumVitae
In the introduction to his book Cohn explains that he got interested in the topic for his book during the Mexican swine flu scare of 2009. At the time he was asked by a New York paper to do a short piece comparing the likely outcome of the then-current epidemic to the aftermath of the Black Death, when Jews were massacred in 1348-49. Some people thought Mexicans in the United States were in danger of similar treatment. (I was not aware of this kind of talk at the time, so will have to take his word for it.)
Cohn responded that he knew of no past influenzas that resulted in massacres of minorities or anyone else. Cohn thought that this kind of violent hatred and blame was rare in the history of epidemics.
The publisher rejected the article, telling Cohn that wasn’t what his readers wanted to hear.
(In his book Cohn shows that the massacres of Jews in 1348, which did take place in that instance, were not instigated by populist resentments and hatreds but by the elites who owed repayment to Jews from whom they had borrowed large sums of money.)
But Cohn doesn’t get all ideological about it. His book is mostly a telling of what did happen in response to epidemics, and a short summary of my listening so far would be: All sorts of things happened. All-encompassing generalizations are hard to come by.Published in