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Our struggle with epidemics of infectious disease

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 23 March 2020

As we struggle to come to terms with the Coronavirus we should realise that threats from epidemics are not new.

For more than 200 years Australians have struggled to come to grips with outbreaks of infectious disease and to manage the disruption, fear, hysteria and panic that such events inevitably produced. Our history is full of examples of such defining events which often played havoc with normal everyday life and were responsible for producing an environment of fear and dread which at times threatened to overwhelm our country.

Epidemics reveal much about how we regard the risk of death and disease, how we respond to such events and how Governments and the medical profession labour to provide explanations and control measures.


It remains surprising how small a part our knowledge of past epidemic crises plays in our historical memory and the way we look at risk and vulnerability today.

There remains a widespread belief that Australia responded effectively and humanely to past epidemics and that all levels of Government cooperated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With the possible exception of HIV/AIDS, State and Federal Governments have struggled to understand the origin and means of spread of most epidemics, fought with each other and often produced control and containment plans which did little but heighten human fear and anxiety.

Epidemics tell us much about how we manage our lives, how we see the world about us, how we evaluate risk and vulnerability, how we react to moments of crisis and how we are influenced by views and comments around us. Critically they also tell us how much our lives are influenced by the media and the way the media responds to such events and presents its news stories.

We have much to learn from how our country wrestles with the threat of infectious disease.

Epidemics and pandemics are recurring events in Australia’s history. The bacteria and viruses responsible for many infectious disease outbreaks continually change and mutate making it difficult for our immune system to adapt or medical science to come up with a satisfactory cure or control measures.


It is also true that our behaviour is encouraging the appearance and spread of new and the resurgence of old infections. Such things as personal mobility, rapid international air travel, cruise ships, changes in agricultural practices, continuing modification of the natural environment and our increasing intrusion on natural disease reservoirs have radically changed the infectious disease environment.

But what have we learnt from our past experience? In some respects very little.

SARS and now Coronavirus demonstrate how devoid our arsenal of response and reaction is and how we are forced back into the past for measures of control such as quarantine, isolation, social distancing and avoidance, cleansing and spraying buildings and roads.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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