patten113_MARK RALSTONAFP via Getty Images_liwenliang Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Truth and Viral Consequences

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.

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