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Did UK pandemic policy unleash a culture of medical dependence, unrest and insecurity?

The coronavirus pandemic has frequently been viewed in modern Britain as either unique, exceptional or unprecedented. In this report, David Martin Jones and Emma Webb suggest there is nothing particularly novel about disease in the human experience – and cautions that we are desperately in need of some historical perspective.

This report’s historical recounting of past pandemics and their interpretation both at the time and by historians – from the Athenian epidemic of 430 BC to the Black Death and the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 – tries to set Covid-19 in context.

“Why”, the authors question, “did western governments embark on a policy of lockdown to arrest a mild contagion without attending to the historic social and political effects of such policies?”

Given Western countries not only assumed its global impact unique – and anticipated its consequences with an apocalyptic rhetoric – governments came to embrace an epidemiological prediction of death rates of 1 per cent of the West’s population unless they locked down the economy, quarantined households and suspended all non-essential activity.

The authors find that: “This overreaction, rather than the virus itself, captures … the manner in which modern life has become medicalised. This development which over the course of the twentieth century came to treat the population as subject to an increasingly omniscient public health regime, is one of the more remarkable features of our contemporary condition.”

The report suggests, “…Health, as the response to coronavirus has vividly demonstrated, trumps all other social goods – economic, concerning civic liberty or universal education – in a manner that would have baffled both the classical world and nineteenth century liberal reformers.”

“But if medicine expanded almost beyond the bounds of imagination,” the report claims “…the euphoria of the age of penicillin and the pill has turned, since the end of the Cold War, into dependence and anxious insecurity. The medicalisation of life has transformed society and rendered it culturally iatrogenic, installing medicine as a domineering moral enterprise.”

The report finds that “…The European year of revolutions 1848 also coincided with widespread cholera riots. There was, it seemed, a miasma haunting Europe and it was that of infectious disease provoking popular rebellion. Nineteenth century social reformers, autocrats and revolutionaries were therefore acutely aware of the social and political consequences of quarantine regimes and imposed them with great reluctance because of their potential for unrest, riot and rebellion.”

On quarantines, the researchers express that “…By the time cholera arrived in Europe, anti-quarantinists condemned quarantine as useless, a nuisance to trade, and obnoxious to growth. Nineteenth century radical social reformers, in particular, recognised that the state required effective public health measures, but not the crude recourse to quarantine and cordon stopping trade.”

They conclude, “…The more everyday life is medicalised, the more people are forced to operate under the influence of organised health care. When governments instruct us to protect the NHS itself rather than the patients it is supposed to serve, we reach a condition of cultural iatrogenesis. Institutions of medicine then work only as a domineering moral enterprise.”

The authors argue, “Despite individuals being healthier and living longer, there is a sense that our general well-being is under constant threat from the air we breathe to the food in our shops. The prevailing age of infectious disease has given way to the era of chronic disorder.”

Moreover, they find this effect “… also reveals the extent to which the recent exaggerated pursuit of national health has resulted in a dangerous condition of ‘cultural iatrogenesis’. The authors discuss iatrogenesis as occurring when societies capitulate to professionally organised medicine that has come to function as a domineering moral enterprise and which advertise their bureaucratic expansion as a war against all suffering.”

Is Coronavirus unprecedented?

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