Historian Highlights Eerie Parallels Between Reactions To Cholera And COVID-19 Outbreaks

A young woman who died of cholera, drawn when healthy and four hours before death. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0) / Twitter / Judith Flanders

In the mid-19th century, you could describe London as a gigantic toilet and you wouldn't be that wide of the mark.

From 1780 to 1860, the population grew from just over 750,000 people to well over three million. The sewage system didn't really keep up with that growth – mainly because there wasn't one until 1856, and it wouldn't be city-wide until 1866. The city's waste products (including the main two) were being disposed of into the Thames or sometimes cesspools near town wells, which would have been terrible even if it wasn't also their water supply.

Essentially, the city had turned their river into a toilet and then proceeded to drink from and bathe in it. You don't have to be a medical expert to guess that's what's known as "bad". The result was, as you'd expect, an intolerable stink that wouldn't be solved until it annoyed Parliament by causing frequent outbreaks of disease, the main one being cholera. 

When cholera emerged, it took many years before humanity figured out and proved that it was a water-borne disease, when John Snow (not the sexy one) proved that a contaminated well was the cause of 500 cholera deaths in ten days by removing the handle from the well pump. This made drinking from the well impossible and stopped the outbreak in its tracks.

Before then, as with many new diseases, the cause of the illness was widely speculated on by everybody from scientists to the 19th Century equivalent of YouTubers. Conspiracy theories abounded, including theories that the disease spread more rapidly through poorer areas because they were deliberately being poisoned by the rich, and that God was punishing whole communities for their sins, like a supply teacher keeping the whole class for detention.

Before you get too smug about how dumb the people of the past were, historian Judith Flanders recently posted a thread of eerie parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic of today.

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"There were riots and disturbances associated with cholera in many major towns and cities throughout the spring and summer of 1832," one of the extracts from Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection and the Destitute read. "In the early riots, poor people doubted the existence of the disease at all, believing it to be a figment of the authorities' imagination - designed to permit coercion of the poor into hospitals for use in vivisection experiments, for dissection after death, or to keep down the population."

The disease-denial wasn't just limited to the uneducated, with records of businessmen in Sunderland putting an outbreak down to "common bowel complaints" which occur every year, making an argument you're probably familiar with today – that deaths during the outbreak were less than would usually occur in that time period.

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Flanders points out that the government at the time (or the Oxford Board of Health at least) were keen to push the blame onto ordinary folk rather than government actions.

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"All Drunkards, Revellers, and to the thoughtless and imprudent of both sexes," the passage reads, somewhat aggressively. "You are now told for the third time, that Death and Drunkenness go hand in hand... Death smites with its surest and swiftest arrows the licentious and intemperate".

If you've spent a little too much time online lately – and let's face it, what else are you going to do – the reactions to cholera and other epidemics may be a little bit familiar.

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If you'd like a little hope from history thrown your way, the cholera epidemics in England raged for decades and killed many thousands of people. They were finally ended when the stench of the Thames became so bad that it overwhelmed Parliament, which took just 18 days to provide money to construct a new sewage system to deal with the problem.

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