HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

This Great Catastrophe: Bungling Pandemics from 1918 to Today

Rebecca M. Bratspies (City University of New York), This Great Catastrophe: Bungling Pandemics from 1918 to Today, 30 Mich. State U. Coll. L. Int’l L. Rev. (2021):

In examining how badly the United States bungled its COVID-19 pandemic response, it is worth going back to the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic. Author after author cautioned that the next pandemic would overwhelm the United States health system and that the demand for hospital beds, treatments, and medical staff would quickly outstrip supply. These prescient predictions from just two years ago. Why, when the risks were so obvious and so clearly understood, were they ignored? In answering that question there is blame enough to go around. The American public increasingly refused vaccines for communicable diseases, resisted spending for health research, and elected anti-science candidates. Those elected officials in turn failed to take obvious steps to ward off an entirely foreseeable disaster. Some of these developments are new(ish), relating to the specifics of the current political climate. Yet what is most striking is how readily official responses fell into virtually the same patterns that stymied effective pandemic response in 1918, and how structural racism predicted which communities would be hardest hit and least served by government responses. Instead of learning from the mistakes of the 1918 pandemic we have largely repeated them. This paper traces some of the threads of complacency, hubris, isolationism, and distrust that got in the way both times, and draws some broader lessons we must learn about American political culture before the pandemic next time.

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