The Pandemic and the Limits of Science

Most striking, however, are the key lessons he has learned from his pandemic, which apply all too well to ours. First, respiratory diseases are highly contagious, and even the most common ones require attention. Second, the burden of preventing their spread rests heavily on the individual. These three create the overriding challenge: “Public indifference,” wrote Soper. “People don’t appreciate the risks they are taking.”

After more than a hundred years of medical advancement, the same obstacle remains. It is the duty of leadership, not science, to protect its citizens from indifference. Of course, indifference doesn’t quite capture the reality of why we found it so difficult not to gather inside or without a mask. This pandemic may also have revealed the power of our species’ desire for communication. We need each other, even against common sense and well-founded advice in the field of public health.

A week before “Lessons” appeared in 1919, Soper published another article in the New York Medical Journal in which he spoke out in favor of an international health commission. “It should not be left to the vagaries of chance to encourage or sustain the progression of these forms of diseases that are neglected and become pestilence,” he argued. He envisioned a supranational agency tasked with investigating and reporting the progress of dangerous diseases – “a vibrant, efficient, energetic institution with real powers and capable of doing great things.”

He got his wish. Soper modeled his vision on the model of the International Bureau of Public Health, which was founded in Paris in 1908 and later, just two months before his death, became part of the United Nations World Health Organization, which was founded in April 1948. But the WHO couldn’t contain Covid-19 either. Preventing the next pandemic requires far more coordination and planning within and between governments than it did this time, let alone a century ago.

“Let’s hope the nations recognize the need” and “begin the work that so urgently needs to be done,” wrote Soper in 1919. Let’s hope that before the next pandemic we have done more than just hope.

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