Pandemics bring social pain, too

L. Taksa

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Epidemics and pandemics are exceptional events that create abnormal life circumstances. Yet it is important to understand that they also become interlocked with the broader social, political and economic contexts in which they occur and they have long-term consequences for individuals and societies.

In short, they are never experienced in isolation. Rather they generate fear and interconnect with prevailing fears within societies. The economic and social impact of such fear is evident in financial markets, tourism and other industries, prices of goods and services and social isolation, stereotyping, discrimination and loss of liberty as governments respond by increasing surveillance, quarantine and related control measures.

Besides generating personal and social tragedies, epidemics and pandemics affect everyday life more broadly, as well as having an impact on collective memories.

Evidence from previous pandemics, such as the Bubonic Plague and the Influenza Pandemic provide some indication of these broader implications. For example a relatively small number of people died in Australia during the Bubonic Plague outbreak, which occurred in 1900 and which continued to affect people over the next 10 years. Historians Curson and McCracken estimate that most of the 1,200 cases occurred in Sydney where some 303 people contracted the disease, 103 died and over 1750 people were uprooted either through quarantine requirements or personal decisions to leave the city.

By contrast, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 caused a far greater mortality rate. By the end of 1919, some 12,000 deaths were reported in Australia and over 21 million worldwide. Some estimate that 60 million were affected.

Yet as Myron Echenberg pointed out, these statistics cannot give us a 'measure of the panic and psychological impact' of such events.

Public health policies and strategies implemented to contain these diseases, such as, quarantine measures, the wearing of masks, and the closure of schools, factories, theatres, halls, churches, cafes, restaurants and so on, create their own fears and anxieties, which in turn lead to the further social isolation of those who succumb to the diseases.

In fact, the people I and others interviewed about their memories of the Bubonic Plague in Sydney after 1900 and the Influenza pandemic 1918-19 noted that enforced physical isolation while positive from a public health perspective had negative effects in the form of social isolation and fear of groups and ideas already identified as potentially disruptive.

Numerous historians highlight the importance of pre-existing conditions in shaping the panic caused by epidemics and pandemics. They also point out that previous pandemics provide a reference point for the way people react to pandemics. These sorts of connections are reinforced by public health measures.

For example, during the Bubonic Plague outbreaks in the middle ages those affected were treated like lepers with the houses of those affected marked with red flags. In Italy, some 1,500 victims were isolated on a small island in the Venetian Lagoon (Valsecchi, 2007).

Similarly in Sydney in 1900 affected individuals and families were isolated either in their homes or removed to quarantine stations. Houses were resumed and demolished. During the Influenza Pandemic in Sydney, people were again isolated in quarantine stations or specially designated hospitals. The homes of those affected were marked with a yellow or red flag. As one informant recalled 'no-one would come near'.

The use of the Bubonic Plague as a reference point for the Influenza Pandemic by individuals and more importantly in the press provided a graphic means of portraying and communicating the horror of a rampant disease.

My research on representations and memories of the Bubonic Plague and Influenza pandemic illustrates how these events and the fears generated by them draw out and reinforce existing social problems and divisions, stereotypes and hatreds as people try to find explanations for developments that are beyond their control and to attribute blame, particularly to those groups of people or ideas that are already seen as a threat.

For example, when the Bubonic Plague spread to Australia in 1900, at a time of immense demographic and technological change, there was little understanding of the scientific cause of the disease. Within a short time focus on the 'Black Death' of the middle ages began to draw on the prevailing Australian fear of Asia and Asian invasion.

This encouraged the belief that the disease had been introduced to Australia by recently arrived Chinese seamen and immigrants, which served to isolate people who were already the subject of discrimination at that time - this was precisely the time when the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, formalised the White Australia policy.

This process of attributing blame was not limited to Australia in the 1918-1919 period. Richard Collier has shown the way that the names given to the disease in different parts of the world reflected prevailing concerns about certain ethnic groups and ideologies. He points to the fact that the Influenza was called the 'Singapore fever' in Penang and the Bolshevik disease in Poland.

My own interviews demonstrated that in Sydney, the disease became associated with the disruption caused by World War One and most importantly with the NSW General Strike of 1917. Such negative associations had immense impact on how people experienced and remembered the disease and on their relationships with family, neighbours and so on.

In conditions of collective anxiety, media representations often reinforce fear and confusion among people by encouraging fear and blame in ways that can help to accentuate pre-existing divisions in societies and the propensity for stereotyping and discrimination.

During 1900-01 and 1918-19 press articles exploited underlying fears. For example in 1900 sensational stories appeared about the medieval 'Black Death'. The attention given to the horrors of the plague in India in the late 1890s in many articles played on Australian's fear of Asia at that time.

In 1918-19, press articles again invoked the Black plague/death and drew on the existing anxieties caused by the economic and political dislocations caused by World War One, the NSW General Strike of 1917 and the Bolshevik revolution. In this context, some referred to Bolshevism as a pneumonia and a disease of the brain and these associations provided justification for stereotyping and ostracism.

In 1919, the Medical Journal accused the daily press of 'fanning the flame of panic' by renaming the Influenza 'the plague'.

The similarities between these historical examples and the current outbreak and spread of 'swine' Influenza or flu are profound. As occurred in 1918-19, health authorities in Mexico have encouraged the wearing of masks. Other health measures include quarantine and increased surveillance.

As occurred in relation to the earlier pandemics, scientists are scrambling to understand the cause of the virus and to assist in its containment. Already we see economic impacts on markets, industries and prices (such as petrol). People are leaving Mexico city for surrounding districts just as they left Sydney for the Blue Mountains during the Bubonic Plague.

In light of these continuities it is important for us to learn lessons from the past, particularly as the spread of this pandemic is likely to be quicker and more extensive than previous ones when mobility was limited by the pace of rail transport, limited motor transport and virtually non-existent air transport.

Given the prevailing fears caused by cultural differences and global economic conditions, it is incumbent on governments and the media to appreciate the need to minimise the potential for negative social impacts of the 'swine' pandemic.

Journalists have a responsibility to avoid 'fanning the flames of panic' and governments have a responsibility that extends beyond preventing the spread of the disease. Governments need to be prepared to respond appropriately to protect those who succumb to the disease from discrimination.

This has already been acknowledged by the Israeli Government. In recognising that association with 'swine' can lead to negative implications for Jewish people, the Israeli Government has formally renamed the 'Swine flu'. In Israel, it is thought that the 'Mexican flu' will help to avoid offence and ostracism.

While this is certainly an acknowledgement of the likely negative social impact of naming, I would argue that the association of the disease with one country and one group of people is also problematic.

We need to be mindful of the way naming operates as a process of social inclusion and exclusion.
Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationABC News
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sept 2010


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