Trump passes Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, after a briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House, March 2020
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

To borrow and paraphrase Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote about prisons, you can tell a lot about a society by its response to epidemics of infectious disease. 

Plagues put a mirror to the societies they afflict.

A pandemic will expose the failures of a government that does not invest in the health of its constituents or address the collective risks that arise when vulnerable groups lack health protections. For such a society, taking those lessons and applying them to reduce the risks of future contagion is surely the better of two possible outcomes.

The Plague Makes the State

The historian Mark Harrison has argued that starting with the first major Black Death epidemic in the fourteenth century, the need to control plagues helped create the modern state. Otherwise, predatory elites were compelled to assume greater responsibility for their constituents’ lives and well-being in order to protect themselves and their workforces.

The quarantine and isolation measures

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  • THOMAS J. BOLLYKY is Director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways. Follow him on Twitter @TomBollyky.
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