Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

The World’s Reaction to the Wuhan Coronavirus

Iraqi medical staff check passengers arriving from Iran at Najaf Airport, Iraq, March 5, 2020. (Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters)
Plagues and panics, ancient and modern

Most preindustrial mass plagues were bacterial, caused by urban overcrowding and poor-to-nonexistent garbage and sewage disposal. In the disruptive aftermath of pandemics, fundamental social and political change sometimes followed—wars lost, governments ended, wealth and power reversed. Of course, cheap antibiotics, modern medical care, and sophisticated sewage treatment and refuse collection have mostly ended the epidemic threat of typhus, typhoid, and bubonic plague. Apparently, our trust in modern drugs is such that we arrogantly do not even consider the chance of pandemic danger posed by 500,000 or so homeless Americans, who live outside in harsh weather, amid vermin, excrement, and rodents

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This article appears as “Plagues and Panics, Ancient and Modern” in the March 23, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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