An interesting post by Nicolas Bagley at the Incidental Economist provides a brief overview of a class he taught on infectious diseases and the law. Looking at diseases ranging from cholera, Spanish flu, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, Bagley claims that ten key themes emerged:
- Governments are typically unprepared, disorganized, and resistant to taking steps necessary to contain infectious diseases, especially in their early phases.
- Local, state, federal, and global governing bodies are apt to point fingers at one another over who’s responsible for taking action. Clear lines of authority are lacking.
- Calibrating the right governmental response is devilishly hard. Do too much and you squander public trust (Swine flu), do too little and people die unnecessarily (AIDS).
- Public officials are reluctant to publicize infections for fear of devastating the economy.
- Doctors rarely have good treatment options. Nursing care is often what’s needed most. Medical professionals of all kinds work themselves to the bone in the face of extraordinary danger.
- In the absence of an effective treatment, the public will reach for unscientific remedies.
- No matter what the route of transmission or the effectiveness of quarantine, there’s a desire to physically separate infected people.
- Victims of the disease are often thought to deserve the affliction, especially when those victims are mainly from marginalized groups.
- We plan, to the extent we plan at all, for the last pandemic. We don’t do enough to plan for the next one.
- Historical memory is short. When diseases fall from the headlines, the public forgets and preparation falters.
The post also has a recommended reading list for people interested in the intersection of infectious disease, history, and public health. Go check it out.