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Truth and Viral Consequences

Summary:
Proper surveillance of potentially catastrophic public-health threats requires knowledge and transparency, both within and between countries. As the deadly COVID-19 pandemic once again shows, telling the truth saves lives. LONDON – Of all the challenges that humans have faced over millennia, disease has always been a particularly brutal and resourceful enemy. The COVID Wake-Up Call The False Crisis Comparison Win McNamee/Getty Images The Three Essential Questions about COVID-19 Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty

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Proper surveillance of potentially catastrophic public-health threats requires knowledge and transparency, both within and between countries. As the deadly COVID-19 pandemic once again shows, telling the truth saves lives.

LONDON – Of all the challenges that humans have faced over millennia, disease has always been a particularly brutal and resourceful enemy.

The impact of disease has shaped history. Amerindians were ravaged by illnesses that the Spanish conquistadors brought to Mexico and South America; the “stout Cortez” of John Keats’s poem was accompanied by killer diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus. Unlike Eurasians, native populations in the New World had not spent several thousand years evolving with animals and their diseases. As a result, America’s indigenous populations declined by some 90% in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In Europe, on the other hand, fighting disease was a formative element in the growth of political authority and state governance in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance period. Lethal plagues like the Black Death led authorities in the Northern Italian city-states and elsewhere to fight back with enforced public hygiene and quarantines. Henry VIII’s England and other European states established isolation hospitals. Later, the United States developed public-health services in part to fight yellow fever and other epidemics.

Military campaigns also were accompanied by disease. Napoleon’s leading general, Marshal Ney, wrote that “General Famine and General Winter” cut down the French army that marched on – and subsequently retreated from – Moscow in 1812. But “General Typhus and General TB” played their parts as well.

Chris Patten
Associate Director of Design Thinking, Henry Ford Learning Institute. I use design to make complex issues more tangible and build empathy among stakeholders.

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