Repeating Mistakes of Pandemics Past

UVA History Professor Compares COVID-19 Response With Prior Public Health Actions
Christian McMillen

University of Virginia history professor Christian McMillen has written on past pandemics and the history of fighting against infectious diseases. Photo by Dan Addison

April 16, 2020

Just as in past pandemics, leaders are focusing on a possible medical solution to COVID-19 instead of strengthening public health infrastructure, University of Virginia history professor Christian W. McMillen says on the latest episode of “Common Law.” 

McMillen, the author of “Pandemics: A Short History” and “Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to the Present,” says the United States has “largely let crumble” public health measures like ensuring an adequate supply chain, having an infrastructure to handle contact tracing and coordinating a national response. 

At the same time, leaders are assuming and hoping that “a magic bullet will come to either A) give us immunity or B) cure us, and that’s really a function of the … century of medical breakthroughs that we have had in infectious disease.” 

He adds that the medical breakthroughs that led to a cure for tuberculosis have not led to a decrease in cases worldwide, due to the lack of public health response in affected areas. 

This season of “Common Law,” a UVA Law podcast hosted by Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, is focusing on times when law changed the world. 

On the show, McMillen and the hosts discuss the coronavirus pandemic’s similarities and differences to past pandemics, how misinformation plays a role, and how nations handled restricting the rights of their citizens, among other topics. 

McMillen said the closest corollary to the novel coronavirus was the Spanish influenza of 1918-19,  in which an estimated 50 million people died worldwide, with 675,000 deaths in the United States. 

After its outbreak in the spring of 1918, the flu came back with greater lethality that fall. 

“Knowing that that was the case in 1918, one hopes that won’t be the case in 2020,” he says. 

But, despite advances, there are striking similarities in both the spread and government handling of the Spanish flu and the novel coronavirus.  

“There’s more coordination on the international level now than there was in 1918 because we have the World Health Organization, but … the responses to influenza in 1918 were really local, like they are now,” he said. “It’s also indicative of how fast-moving it was.”  

McMillen has been a member of the Corcoran Department of History since 2004, and serves as associate dean for the social sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is a member of UVA’s Global Infectious Diseases Institute. 

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places to listen to podcasts, including devices like Amazon Alexa. This episode produced by Sydney Halleman and Tony Field. 

For more on the show, visit or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA

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