Pilot: The history of pandemics — and how politicians always react the same way
Play • 38 min

It's striking how few political leaders across the Western world can claim to have handled the coronavirus pandemic especially well. Throughout large parts of Europe and the Americas, politicians have been caught on the hop, reacting slowly and clumsily to the unfolding disaster. In their defense, these leaders have typically blamed what they insist is the unprecedented nature of the Covid catastrophe.

But a glance through the history books shows just how little of this crisis is truly new. As Edith Hall, professor of classics at King's College London, tells the podcast, as long ago as 430BC Boris Johnson's great hero Pericles was himself laid low by a deadly epidemic — the disastrous Plague of Athens. This all-powerful leader of ancient Greece was wildly popular with the public and appeared untouchable, she says, until a new and deadly disease arrived at his shores. Johnson, a classics scholar in his youth, must know the tale all too well. He does not appear to have heeded its lessons.

In addition to the sparkling Professor Hall, I was delighted to interview Sir Richard Evans, professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge, for this episode. In his role as provost of Gresham College, Professor Evans gave a wonderful series of lectures back in 2012 on the history of pandemics, which I listened to during lockdown last year. He tells the podcast how politicians began to fight back against pandemics during the Middle Ages with exactly the sorts of lockdowns and quarantines we've seen this past year — but were frequently undermined by their inability to enforce restrictions, and by an all-too-familiar slowness to react.

My final guest is a genuine pandemic superstar. John M. Barry is the author of 'The Great Influenza', the seminal book on America's response to the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak which helped inspire Bill Gates to devote so much time and resource towards pandemic research. Speaking from his home in New Orleans, Barry gives a gripping account of this shockingly brutal disease — and of the political leaders in parts of the U.S. who failed their people by putting profit before public health.

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Bibliography / Further reading:

These books, articles and lectures were all invaluable resources as I researched this episode of the podcast.

The Great Plagues: Epidemics in History from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Richard J. Evans.

Plagues and Peoples, William H. McNeill

The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, Richard J. Evans.

Small Oversights that Led to the Great Plague of Marseille (1720–1723), Christian A. Devaux

The Black Death, edited and translated by Rosemary Horrox

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

The Origin of Quarantine, Philip A. Mackowiak

Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik 1377-1533, Zlata Blazina Tomic & Vesna Blazina

A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe

The Great Influenza, John M. Barry

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918, Laura Spinney

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