BBC History Magazine

Blighted by disease

In the wake of the SARS and MERS outbreaks earlier this century, as well as the dangers of new strains of influenza, the Ebola epidemic, and popular concerns with threats to the viability of antibiotics, there was already a strong audience for popular medical history. Unsurprisingly, that has grown hugely in the past year. The exposure of grievous inequality by the Covid-19 pandemic, and forced trade-offs between a wide range of social factors, brings the political economy of disease control into focus as never before. Charles Kenny’s book, in the planning since 2015, gains resonance from being able to reckon with the significance and potential aftermaths of the current crisis. It discusses the coronavirus pandemic throughout.

Despite its subtitle, In Kenny’s opinion, a political economy based on Malthus’s pessimistic equation between agricultural production, urbanisation, starvation and illness became obsolete shortly after its publication. Technical improvements both in medicine and social organisation during the 19th century made European and North American urban flourishing possible, but it also gave rise to the wave of imperialism at the root of many of today’s health inequalities and developmental puzzles.

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