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How Governments Respond to Pandemics Like the Coronavirus

What about the ways in which pandemics have tended to impact politics and political structures? Do you think that there are common themes there?

There most certainly are, yes. On political structures, epidemics do undermine the legitimacy of governance and administration if it does too little to deal with a disease, or if it tries to suppress it in particular. I think inevitably it causes a crisis in government. A large part of that is economic. Major epidemics bring economies to a halt, and you can see that. I already mentioned the Black Death. If you look at cholera, particularly in Hamburg in 1892, essentially, because the merchant administration of the city tried to suppress the disease and suppress news of the disease, and failed to deal with it adequately, the government in Berlin just sent in Robert Koch, the bacteriologist, with a team, and they essentially took over the administration of the city. I think you can see that that led to really quite major changes in the way the city was run after that. It can cause a major crisis. Of course, in terms of the economy, it led to huge deficits in government revenues, and also caused severe damage to trade for several months before it recovered.

What about governments trying to use crises to accomplish their own ends, or political leaders trying to do so? Is that something that you’ve seen or noticed throughout history?

Well, it’s interesting. When cholera reached Prussia, in the eighteen-thirties, I came across in the archives a wonderful notice printed by the Prussian state, where it basically told people that what you had to do is trust in the authorities and obey what the authorities say. You’re not supposed to question government measures, and then trust in God. I think also there’s a major difference in terms of religion. I mean, Europe, at any rate, right up until the late nineteenth century, is a religious society, so people reacted by praying, not really doing any good in the short term.

Governments using disease, well, it’s more actually popular reactions to disease, popular protest. There’s a very good example very recently in Haiti, where cholera broke out in this series of disasters just a few years ago, an earthquake, a hurricane, and then cholera. The state was extremely weak, and people blamed cholera on the Nepalese United Nations troops who’d arrived there, and blamed them quite correctly. There were riots against the United Nations troops and, of course, protests against the government. I think it’s less common for governments to use epidemics for their own purposes. They’re reacting all the time, rather than acting.

It’s interesting that you have all these governments around the world right now that people have termed authoritarian or autocratic or autocratic-leaning. Putting aside China for a minute and just looking at the U.K. and the United States, with leaders who at least have impulses of that sort, they nevertheless seem entirely reactive rather than proactive in the measures they’re taking.

There are interesting differences in the way these various countries have dealt with this. I think the U.K.’s response is very much in the British tradition of volunteerism, liberalism, the laissez-faire state. Britain has been much slower to introduce major regulation and major intervention by the state. It’s tended more, up to now, to rely on voluntary action by people.

If you happen to look at states with a much stronger state presence in society in Continental Europe, like France and Italy or Spain, there’s much more enforcement of government measures—isolation enforced by the police, for example. I think that’s a major difference in the traditions and then the political culture of different societies.

When you were studying twentieth-century history and especially twentieth-century fascism and authoritarianism, were there examples of big health outbreaks, and how were those dealt with?

No, sorry. I don’t think there were, no.

That’s an acceptable answer.

Maybe they were lucky. I don’t know. I’m not sure that, in the end, there are big differences between authoritarian and liberal states or democratic states in the way they react to a major epidemic. It demands very major government intervention, whatever kind of government or whatever kind of state you have, whatever kind of political party is in power. In a way, it’s the epidemic that’s calling the shots. In Britain, there’s been massive public pressure for government to intervene in a more authoritarian way in society, in shaping public reactions and shaping public behavior. In the end, it may be easier for a regime like China to impose regulations and restrictions. Then if you look at some of the other societies that have been relatively successful in combating coronavirus—take South Korea. That is a democratic state, and yet that’s been successful, too.

You were talking about the differences between the U.K. and the U.S., which certainly have manifested themselves early on, but it’s very possible that, in a month’s time, everyone will be trying to be doing the same thing, putting the same Band-Aids on the same overwhelming problem.

Well, that does depend. When you get to a later stage of the epidemic, it does become very important what kind of health-care system you have. The National Health Service in the U.K. will be under tremendous strain, but I think it’s probably better equipped to cope than the health service in the U.S., such as it is.

To return to Hamburg for a minute, can you talk more about how things changed once they finally came out of this cholera epidemic? I know your book goes to about 1910, but what by the end had you seen change, and how was society different?

I think Hamburg was very unusual in imperial Germany, because it was regarded as kind of an English city. It was very Anglophile. That’s one of the things that characterized that city, that it had this very laissez-faire attitude toward administration, toward society and politics, and then that changed. It became more what you might call Prussian. It became more top-down, more authoritarian in the way they organized things.

Also, there’s a great loss of legitimacy by the city fathers. That was reflected in the growth of popularity of the Socialists in Hamburg, the Social Democrats. The city administration in some ways became less liberal, and revised the voting rights to take voting rights away from the working classes to protect its own rule. They got more integrated into imperial Germany. I think it became more German, if you like, and then that had a lot of implications. I think it’s difficult to connect that with the rise of National Socialism, which is relatively weak in Hamburg in electoral terms in the nineteen-twenties.

So to summarize some of what you are saying, you see more continuities than differences in how states respond, even though we’re in a new age with modern medicine and modern communication and we can see what’s going on so much more quickly and so on. Is that accurate?

Yeah, it is accurate. I mean, as I said, certainly common features emerge. For example, in terms of information being made available, again, there have been a lot of complaints in the U.K. that not enough information has been made available to people. That’s fairly standard across epidemics in history.

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