cover image Plagues in the Nation: How Epidemics Shaped America

Plagues in the Nation: How Epidemics Shaped America

Polly J. Price. Beacon, $28.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8070-4349-3

“Effective disease control is a matter not just of containing (or better yet, killing) pathogens but also of implementing effective laws and governance,” according to this incisive history of public health crises in the U.S. from the 1770s to today. Price (Judge Richard S. Arnold), a professor of law and global health at Emory University, contends that conflicts between federal, state, and local governments and America’s “deep culture of individual rights and constitutional values” have often hindered efforts to stamp out epidemics. She examines how vaccine distribution programs failed to reach high-risk populations during the 1968 “Hong Kong flu” outbreak and describes resistance to face mask laws during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Analyses of smallpox, yellow fever, AIDS/HIV, and other disease outbreaks also reveal a history of racial discrimination in care and inoculation, as well as a tendency of voters and elected leaders to relax once a crisis has passed and fail to pass laws that could help prevent the next one. Turning to the Covid-19 pandemic, Price examines the public health impact of social media misinformation and tensions between Democratic governors and the Trump administration. Gripping prose and lucid analysis make this an essential study of what needs to change before the next epidemic. (May)