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Imagining pandemics now, and then: a century of medical failure

Honigsbaum, M. ORCID: 0000-0002-1891-8763 (2021). Imagining pandemics now, and then: a century of medical failure. Interface Focus, 11(6), article number 20210029. doi: 10.1098/rsfs.2021.0029


Ever since the devastating 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, policy makers have employed mathematical models to predict the course of epidemics and pandemics in an effort to mitigate their worst impacts. But while Britain has long been a pioneer of predictive epidemiology and disease modellers occupied influential positions on key committees that advised the government on its response to the coronavirus pandemic, as in 1918 Britain mounted one of the least effective responses to Covid-19 of any country in the world. Arguing that this ‘failure of expertise’ was the result of medical and political complacency and over-reliance on disease models predicated on influenza, this paper uses the lens of medical history to show how medical attitudes to Covid-19 mirrored those of the English medical profession in 1918. Rather than putting our faith in preventive medicine and statistical technologies to predict the course of epidemics and dictate suppressive measures in future, I argue we need to cultivate more profound forms of imaginative engagement with infectious disease outbreaks that take account of the long history of quarantines and the lived experiences of pandemics. A useful starting point would be to recognize that while measures such as the R° may be useful for calculating the reproductive rate of a virus, they can never capture the full risks of pandemics or their social complexity.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2021 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
Publisher Keywords: medical policy, epidemiology, quarantines, pandemics, coronavirus, influenza
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Q Science > QR Microbiology > QR180 Immunology
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity > Journalism
SWORD Depositor:
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