What is the oldest known pandemic

History of the pandemics: "Loyalty to the authorities becomes a virtue"

10.02.2021 The science historian Prof. Dr. Andreas Bernard has been researching the connection between medical knowledge and data organization since the first vaccinations. While studying the sources, he met old friends.

The corona virus has a size in the nanometer range and is invisible to the human eye. How do people deal with this invisible danger?
There is the facticity of the damage caused by the virus: people get sick, suffer, or even die. But this factuality has no clear origin. Compare the virus to a criminal: both can kill people. But the criminal has a motive and we can see him. A virus is a being with no intention. That makes people feel uncomfortable.
So the virus remains just as abstract for us as it did for people 300 years ago?
The idea of ​​contagion has a history: Until around 1870, the idea of ​​human-to-human transmission was controversial and was repeatedly rejected by medicine for long periods of time. Rather, people believed in so-called miasms, i.e. localized sources of infection. It was imagined that everyone there would get sick, for example in poor areas with poor hygienic conditions. Today we naturally have the idea of ​​a virus that is transmitted by sneezing and coughing. Louis Pasteur's research and Robert Koch's discovery of the tuberculosis pathogen were a milestone in our understanding of human-to-human transmission. In terms of the history of science, this way of thinking is still quite new.
How has the corona pandemic changed our ideas?
Epidemics, for example, always trigger new collection models. That leads to technical innovation. Even during the corona pandemic, people's attitudes towards data collection have changed. Fear was redefined. An application like the Corona warning app would certainly have been unthinkable in Germany a few years ago. Much has changed fundamentally in the past few months.
They deal with a period of about 300 years. What surprised you in particular?
For example, the continuity of events in some questions: The vaccination opposition, for example, is very old. Smallpox vaccines are considered to be the oldest vaccines. The first vaccinations against smallpox in the early 18th century were rejected by clerics: the vaccination would be contrary to divine providence. In 1874, a national compulsory vaccination against smallpox was introduced in Germany. Life reform movements of this time rejected vaccinations as artificial. The body can heal itself. “Lateral thinkers” are therefore not a phenomenon of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, neither are prejudices. Especially at the beginning of the corona pandemic, people with an Asian phenotype were increasingly complaining about hostility.
The xenophobic narrative of the introduced epidemic is part of the story: Robert Koch's thinking, for example, was strongly nationalistic, and he liked to say about cholera or smallpox: “The epidemics come from the East.” In 2019/2020 we witnessed a criticism of China the undertone: “The Chinese did not take the threat seriously. The economy was more important than health there, and the hygienic conditions in the markets may leave something to be desired. ”This is a very old model of epidemiological xenophobia. But at some point the narrative turned, and the call for stricter rules determined the debate about Corona - even in the left-liberal press. Surprisingly, the so-called zero-covid strategy is particularly often supported by people who see themselves as left-wing. Loyalty to authority suddenly becomes a virtue. Dealing with a pandemic therefore always has a political and ideological side. In the second half of the 20th century at the time of the Cold War, the USSR, for example, sold good epidemic management as a success of socialism. For example, one of the GDR leadership's slogans was: “Socialism is the best prophylaxis.” Politicians argued: The West is too individualistic, which is why people there are more likely to become infected. Pandemics are also a litmus test of political programs.
A particularly striking example in connection with prejudice is AIDS / HIV.
The HIV virus is almost always transmitted through intimate contact, similar to the centuries-old disease syphilis. Corona is transmitted in a much more volatile manner. In the end, I often don't know where I got infected - on the bus or maybe in the supermarket. The different routes of infection ensure a structural differentiation. With the HI virus in particular, there was initially great uncertainty as to how the transmission would work. In the early 1980s, hysterical theories circulated: If you were only in the same room with a homosexual man, you were practically dead. Only when medicine has the disease under control does a symbolically charged plague become a literal and crude narrative weaken. This can also be seen well in the example of smallpox: In 1980, this epidemic was considered to be eradicated worldwide. But only then did the speculation end. At the same time AIDS / HIV emerged. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if there had been social media forty years ago. But actually I don't even want to imagine it. Because the media situation is of course also responsible for whether and how the world threatens to fall apart during a pandemic.
Thank you for the interview!