Pandemic Politics: Lessons from the United States’ first epidemic
In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. International Affairs’ 50:50 in 2020 initiative is partnering with the FSF to support its mission of amplifying the expertise of women and share the insights of PhD students on COVID-19 and grand strategy; the military; and governance and democracy.
This week in Pandemic Politics, Julie George’s introduction, as well as Katrina Ponti’s, Dakota Foster’s and John R. Emery’s blogposts discuss COVID-19, democracy and governance.
In 1793 yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. This was the beginning of a decade-long series of epidemics caused by the mosquito-borne virus. In Philadelphia it would go on to claim approximately 5,000 lives in the city of 50,000. Historian Billy G. Smith described the impact of the fever on the city, stating that ‘the most admired city in America, Philadelphia, had become its most feared, the epicenter of death’.
Despite this massive death toll and the virus’s spread beyond Philadelphia, the yellow fever epidemic has not been part of the recent policy discussions of COVID-19. However, there are three important lessons from the yellow fever epidemics for the current fight against COVID-19. First, it demonstrates the importance of local responses to the infection. Second, it indicates the willingness of citizens to help each other directly when faced with crisis and failure of government. Third, it shows that while local responses are critical, the federal US government must amplify these efforts and be a key player in fighting the pandemic, particularly in order to ensure that the needs and contributions of under-represented groups are met and recognized.
The 1793 Philadelphia epidemic
The yellow fever epidemic demonstrates the importance of local responses to disease in the face of abandonment by federal and state governments. With the first hints of fever in the summer of 1793, members of the national government fled to the countryside. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson told a correspondent ‘the yellow fever is spreading so fast in this city, that the president being gone, [General Henry] Knox going, and [Colonel Alexander] Hamilton ill of it, I believe I shall go also within a few days’. As the national government fled, Pennsylvania’s Governor Thomas Mifflin and much of the state government also decamped.
The day-to-day epidemic experience was recorded in diaries and memoirs of the Philadelphians who remained. These stories emerged as pamphlets and newspaper articles that were read around the US. They detailed that even without guidance from their federal or even state governments, local government and the diverse communities of the city showed the world the value of civic-mindedness in individual citizens. In 1793, Philadelphia Mayor Matthew Clarkson called for the help of citizen committees to aid in controlling and treating the illness. He tasked the College of Physicians with assessing the spread of the disease and possible actions to contain it, as well as mobilizing the Guardians of the Poor society to manage hospitals, oversee quarantine sites and provide volunteers to act as nurses and undertakers. Among these volunteers were Quakers and the Free African Society. Clarkson recalled that Philadelphians ‘rallied round the standard of charity’.
Quaker Edward Garrigues, a volunteer for the Guardians of the Poor, travelled the city visiting the sick. Barely able to sleep from anxiety over his neighbours, he affirmed his belief that ‘on seeing the accumulated distress which I have witnessed and even glad that I am here, believing this city is my proper place’. Even after contracting and recovering from the fever, he continued to visit the ill with food, clean water and to ‘attend to the wants of the distressed in a public manner with my colleagues’. Black leaders in Philadelphia such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen published their notes on yellow fever and their experiences as volunteer undertakers writing that ‘truly our task was hard, yet through mercy, we were enabled to go on’. They refused to remain silent about the health and importance of their community. Their experience with the disease and selfless example in confronting the horrors of the virus forced Americans to consider the significant contributions of African Americans to the country.
Local responses today
Similarly, it is mayors who are organizing local responses to COVID-19, making them some of the most trusted government figures. They have become national symbols for their work rallying communities. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, for example, declared a state of emergency before any cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the city and her policy has become a ‘national model for how early and aggressive action can prevent the explosive rise in cases’.
Moreover, as with the yellow fever epidemics, it is again local communities that are key to the response. Nextdoor, a social media platform where you interact with you neighbours, has transformed from restaurant recommendations to becoming a hub for neighbours offering to help one another as well as supporting communities to pool their resources. Volunteers have also flooded their local charities, offering their time and money to humanitarian efforts in their own neighborhoods. Today’s spate of COVID-19 diary writing also shows the spirit of charity and community-mindedness. Indeed, these are the stories that should be amplified by policy-makers to boost morale and to devise policies that address the pandemic in all communities. Especially, as was the case in 1793, given that governments must acknowledge that communities have different needs, that there are barriers to care for many Americans and that all citizens require equal treatment in the face of the pandemic.
Implications for the contemporary policy
These memoirs of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic show how Philadelphians came together as a community in a time of crisis. Their efforts in the city established better hospitals, quarantine systems and an orphanage. They also highlight the remarkable similarities with how communities are supporting each other during COVID-19.
However, this also shows the profound limitations of local responses to highly infectious diseases that have no concept of nation nor border, as the yellow fever pandemic claimed the lives of ten per cent of the population of the US capital. The experiences of the ‘average American’ must be key to the response, but they cannot be abandoned by the US federal government. This is a lesson that we learn every day, as the inadequate federal response to the virus forces American communities to continue to make the most of dwindling local resources. Epidemics are inherently national and international issues and thus they require strong, coordinated efforts.
Katrina Ponti is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Rochester.
In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. This series is made possible by The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG).