COVID and history: lessons learned

1. Not just people, but entire cultures can be pigheaded
There is a pigheaded resistance to government in Anglo culture that persists even when public health measures are desperately needed to save lives. We have seen this during the COVID-19 pandemic, but history shows that it is nothing new.

British liberals, in particular, saw quarantine regulations as an irrational infringement of the principle of free trade, and bent every effort toward the eradication of such traces of tyranny and Roman Catholic folly. . . .

In England . . . a libertarian prejudice against regulations infringing the individual’s right to do what he chose with his own property was deeply rooted . . . .

[As Asiatic cholera approached, Parliament established a Central Board of Health in 1848] and began installation of water and sewer systems all over the country. . . .

Intrusion upon private property to allow water mains and sewer pipes to maintain the straight lines needed for efficient patterns of flow was also necessary. To many Englishmen at the time this seemed an unwarranted intrusion on their rights and, of course, the capital expenditures involved were substantial. It therefore took the lively fear that cholera provoked to overcome entrenched opposition.

—William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, pp. 272, 276-77

Pigheaded resistance to common-sense public health measures can be found outside of Anglo culture, of course. McNeill notes elsewhere in the same book that, confronted with bubonic plague during the annual hadj to Mecca, Islamic authorities shrugged it off on the theory that Allah alone determines who lives and dies, and when. Similarly, regular outbreaks of cholera among during Hindu pilgrimages to the Ganges River did nothing to diminish enthusiasm to join the crowds.

2. Money talks
Scurvy had been a problem for sailors ever since Columbus. When the British navy learned that the disease resulted from a Vitamin C deficiency, they decided to supply British warships with citrus fruits. As it turned out, however, Mediterranean lemons were more expensive, so they opted for limes from the West Indies, which were much cheaper. Unfortunately, the West Indies varieties were also much lower in Vitamin C, so scurvy outbreaks in the British navy continued for another 80 years. But think of the money they saved! [McNeill, pp. 273-74]

3. Public health is not private health
As I have noted previously, governments are not particularly concerned with your health, or mine. They are only concerned about health when it becomes a public problem by swamping hospitals or impacting the workforce and damaging the economy. Soft-headed dopes like me who continue to think that my governments, local and national, ought to be concerned about my health, are bound to be disappointed.

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