With the non-stop stream of news about the coronavirus and its effects around the globe, it is helpful for us to pause and set it in the context of other historical epidemics …
While we should take all the precautionary measures (handwashing!) in the face of the coronavirus, reading about other historical epidemics can 1) adjust our perspective, realizing that our situation could be much, much worse and 2) make us grateful for (and more attentive to) the medical knowledge and technology that has been developed in the wake of these historical epidemics.
Here are a few book recommendations that tell the history of some of the worst epidemics that the world has known….
Prizewinning science journalist Sonia Shah presents a startling examination of the history of viral infections that have ravaged humanity―and how that knowledge prepares us to stop the next worldwide outbreak.
Over the past fifty years, more than three hundred infectious diseases have either newly emerged or reemerged, appearing in territories where they’ve never been seen before. Ninety percent of epidemiologists expect that one of them will cause a deadly pandemic sometime in the next two generations. It could be Ebola, avian flu, a drug-resistant superbug, or something completely new. While we can’t know which pathogen will cause the next pandemic, by unraveling the story of how pathogens have caused pandemics in the past, we can make predictions about the future.
In Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, Shah interweaves history, original reportage, and personal narrative to explore the origins of epidemics, drawing parallels between cholera, one of history’s most deadly and disruptive pandemic-causing pathogens, and the new diseases that stalk humankind today.
To reveal how a new pandemic might develop, she tracks each stage of cholera’s dramatic journey, from its emergence in the South Asian hinterlands as a harmless microbe to its rapid dispersal across the nineteenth-century world, all the way to its latest beachhead in Haiti. Along the way she reports on the pathogens now following in cholera’s footsteps, from the MRSA bacterium that besieges her own family to the never-before-seen killers coming out of China’s wet markets, the surgical wards of New Delhi, and the suburban backyards of the East Coast.
By delving into the convoluted science, strange politics, and checkered history of one of the world’s deadliest diseases, Pandemic reveals what the next global contagion might look like―and what we can do to prevent it.
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IMAGE CREDIT: Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, Brisbane, 1919 (Public Domain via Wikipedia)
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com