The history of medicine teaches us that we are all the descendants of hardy survivors. Our ancestors faced challenges like this – and many more that were far worse – throughout their lives.  COVID-19 is of particular interest to me as a specialist in Chinese medical history. The medical racism circulating on Fox news and Twitter has a long history. In 1895, foreign journalists labeled China the “Sick Man of Asia” after the country lost a war against Japan. Chinese intellectuals then circulated it in indigenous publications, and the epithet has had surprising endurance, partly because it keeps coming back. Despite the racism, and despite Chinese officials’ misguided attempts to suppress news of the outbreak early on, the People’s Republic of China gave us all an excellent blueprint for controlling COVID-19. Our universities are online because universities across China made that transition early in the epidemic. Social distancing is the Chinese prescription. (So was universal use of face masks, but since the number of users in China quickly outpaced global supply the rest of us cannot follow this sound advice.) As of March 19, China had almost completely eradicated this novel coronavirus, with zero new cases in the original epicenter of Wuhan or Hubei province (though there were 15 new cases elsewhere in China, including Hong Kong). China’s overall 56 cases per one million population is higher than the rate in the US and UK, but lower than almost anywhere else in the world. (Of course seen from another perspective China failed, because COVID got out and has gone global.) China’s suppression of COVID has historical precedent. In 1910-11 China successfully controlled another novel disease epidemic that circulated through breathing: the pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria. The ethnic Chinese doctor from Malaysia, Wu Lien-teh (Ng Leen-tuck 伍連德) was the first to figure out that this pneumonic form of plague spread person-to-person, rather than through a disease vector as with bubonic plague, and he managed to control it in part by advocating the use of face masks. So history repeats itself, albeit with important variation each time. 


Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

Assistant Professor of History

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