• Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale, spoke to the New Yorker on Tuesday about the coronavirus outbreak. 
  • Snowden, who has written a book on the history of epidemics, said that China’s response to the outbreak was “clumsy” and hearkened back to measures used during the plague. 
  • He said the fact that the WHO praised China’s response made him “fearful” of how other regimes would tackle outbreaks in the future. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A historian who specializes in epidemics says the Chinese response to the coronavirus outbreak has left him “fearful” and “terrified.”

Frank M. Snowden, professor emeritus of history and history of medicine at Yale, spoke to the New Yorker on Tuesday about the coronavirus outbreak, and how pandemics have impacted the world throughout history. 

When asked what he thought of China’s response to the outbreak, which included quarantines of whole cities with millions of people, Snowden said he found it “clumsy.”

xi jinping coronavirus

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center) learns about the progress on a vaccine for coronavirus on March 2, 2020.


Xinhua/Ju Peng via Getty



He said the quarantine of the nature which China pulled off, which is called a “cordon sanitaire,” is something out of the Middle Ages. 

“That is something which harkens back to plague measures and that has been repeated over and over, including in the Ebola epidemic. The problem with the cordon sanitaire is that it’s clumsy. It’s a sledgehammer. It arrives too late and it breaks down that fundamental element of public health, which is information.

“That is to say that, threatened with the lockdown, people don’t cooperate with authorities. Authorities therefore no longer know what’s going on and people take flight, which spreads the epidemic,” Snowden said. 

In fact, about 5 million people left Wuhan in the hours before the quarantine kicked in, likely making the situation worse. While the number of new cases in China has slowed, this week they started to compound globally, with serious outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, and Iran.

beijing man surgical mask

A man wearing a face mask as a preventative measure against coronavirus walks on a deserted street in the financial district of Beijing on March 3, 2020.


NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty



“I was very startled to see that this was the response of the Chinese government at the outset. It differs from the norms of public health, which have developed since the plague years, which stress case findings of individuals, then tracing and isolation,” Snowden went on to say. 

He did credit China with changing course as time went on, “trying to elicit the cooperation from the population, in a sense to repair the damage of the early days.” 

But he worries about the example they set, especially when China was praised for their response by the World Health Organization. 

“I don’t quite go along with the response of the WHO, which praised this as wonderful public health. That makes me fearful. Is that to say that other regimes and other countries where there are strongmen ought to impose lockdowns, as was tried with Ebola in West Africa, where it didn’t work? That terrifies me,” Snowden said.

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