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When will we learn?

The war’s public health lessons saved countless lives, long before modern medical revolutions like the discovery of germs.
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Date:   4/20/2021 1:57:36 AM   ( 20 d ) ... viewed 35 times

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First Opinion
Lessons learned — and forgotten — from the horrific epidemics of the U.S. Civil War

By Jonathan S. Jones April 18, 2021

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Related:
Civil War vaccination kits, discovered in a drawer, yield genetic clues to how smallpox was defeated

This work paid off. Deaths from cholera and yellow fever, which had been major killers before the war, plummeted in the decades afterward.

The war’s public health lessons saved countless lives, long before modern medical revolutions like the discovery of germs.

Had that faith in — and support of — public health been maintained, hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided when Covid-19 emerged.

The Civil War also teaches the lesson that epidemics compound preexisting structural racism, hitting people of color the hardest. When the Union army and navy advanced into the South, enslaved people seized the initiative and took freedom into their own hands, fleeing plantations by the thousands to refugee camps behind Union lines.

But in this chaotic mass migration, the U.S. government failed to offer medical assistance to these freed people. Like rural white soldiers, most former slaves lacked acquired immunity to measles and smallpox.

Predictable outbreaks ravaged the refugee camps, killing thousands of people who had nothing but clothes on their backs and no means to obtain medical care. Army officers and government officials willingly turned a blind eye, not bothering to isolate or vaccinate Black refugees, who died in droves.

One hundred and fifty years later, in the early days of Covid-19, American leaders also overlooked Black and brown Americans, failing to provide equitable testing and high-quality care.
This neglect led to higher Covid-19 death rates among communities of color, just as happened with smallpox during the Civil War.

Although some of the Civil War’s public health lessons became mainstream practices in the 20th century, the sense of urgency the Civil War generation felt about public health has fallen by the wayside.

Had the lessons they learned remained fresh in our collective historical consciousness, the U.S. might have applied them and fared better during the time of Covid-19.
Instead, we forgot about medical history, and as a result, we’ve endured the worst public health crisis in generations.

Jonathan S. Jones is a historian and postdoctoral scholar at Penn State University’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.

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