Johannesburg and its epidemics: Can we learn from history?

Covid-19 has massively disrupted life globally and locally, bringing many uncertainties in its wake. It is not, however, the first epidemic to pummel the world or our own country, region and city, raising the question of what we can learn from history. In the case of Johannesburg, epidemics have included: smallpox in 1893; measles in the internment camps of 1901/02; pneumonic plague in 1904; influenza in 1918/19; poliomyelitis in various outbreaks between 1918 and 1957; scarlet fever in outbreaks between 1917 and 1941; and HIV/Aids from the late 1980s. This is in addition to lesser epidemics such as influenza in 1957 and listeriosis in 2018.

History cannot, of course, tell us what will happen with Covid-19; each epidemic has a different epidemiology and has happened in very different temporal contexts with immense variation in terms of population, society, politics, medical knowledge, and more. Nevertheless, there could be some clues from history which may relate to issues of geography, settlement type, mobility, and degrees of immunity or viral resistance within the population. The knowledge drawn from history must, however, be deployed judiciously and in relation to the current science. Even so, there are critical themes cutting across historical episodes that may usefully shape our attention in the current moment. The paper provides an account of the history of Johannesburg’s epidemics, drawing from sources which were available during the Covid-19 lockdown, and suggests six themes to consider in an analysis of history and of current circumstances:

- The idiosyncratic course of epidemics and therefore the need for both close monitoring of developments and high levels of agility in governance response

- The ways in which epidemics are associated with social scapegoating, stigmatising and pathologising, and the need therefore for strong, progressive leadership to counter this;

- The effects of epidemics on the economy, and especially on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable segments of the populations;

- The effects of epidemics on the spatial forms and infrastructures of the city, including through the opportunistic use of epidemics to pursue prior spatial agendas;

- The ways in which epidemics have been governed, with the strengths and drawbacks of the various approaches, including more nationally or more locally centred governance arrangements; and

- The ways in which epidemics have impacted on governance forms into the future, including on institutional forms, legislation and urban policy.


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