The Pandemic and the Limits of Science

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Most striking, though, are the main lessons he drew from his pandemic, which are all too applicable to ours. One, respiratory diseases are highly contagious, and even the common ones demand attention. Two, the burden of preventing their spread falls heavily on the individual. These create, three, the overarching challenge: “Public indifference,” Soper wrote. “People do not appreciate the risks they run.”

A hundred-plus years of medical progress later, the same obstacle remains. It is the duty of leadership, not science, to shake its citizens from indifference. Of course, indifference does not quite capture the reality of why we found it so challenging to stop congregating indoors or without masks. This pandemic has also revealed, perhaps, the power of our species’s desire to commune. We need each other, even against reason and sound public-health advice.

A week before “Lessons” appeared in 1919, Soper published another article, in the New York Medical Journal, making the case for an international health commission. “It should not be left to the vagaries of chance to encourage or stay the progress of those forms of disease, which neglected, become pestilences,” he argued. He imagined a supragovernmental agency charged with investigating and reporting the trajectory of dangerous diseases — “a live, efficient, energetic institution possessing real powers and capable of doing large things.”

He got his wish. Soper modeled his vision on the International Office of Public Health, established in Paris in 1908 and later absorbed into the United Nations World Health Organization, which was founded in April 1948, just two months before his death. But the W.H.O. could not contain Covid-19, either. Preventing the next pandemic will require far more coordination and planning within and between governments than was mustered this time, much less a century ago.

“Let us hope that the nations will see the need” and “initiate the work which so greatly requires to be done,” Soper wrote in 1919. Let us hope that, before the next pandemic comes, we will have done more than hope.