Good day everyone! Loren here. It is a pleasure to write another blog. Today, I am going to talk about the book discussion that was held last May 22, 2023. As a brief recap, our group is currently reading the book Epidemic Urbanism by Gharipour & DeClercq (2021). Part I is about Urban Governance and Part II is about Urban Life. Part II talks about how different cultures and societies handled epidemics like plague, cholera, and meningitis. Four chapters were discussed.
Photo credits: Abe sensei
Chapter 10 talked about the unique social structure that was made in New Castle, England because of the plague. Plague is a vector-borne disease that is passed from animals to humans through lice. If unattended, it can spread to the lungs and can be lethal. It had a significant social impact because the victims of it have 60-80% chances of death if they got infected. New Castle is an important location during the early modern period (16th-19th century) because it is the place where coal, wool, and corn trade takes place. This is also the reason why the plague spread in the city. Plague doctors, who are sometimes not even physicians at all, were seen everywhere. They wore eerie masks that serve a specific purpose. Aromatic substances and fragrance are placed in the beaks of their mask to cover the pungent smell of the victims as well as prevent them from contracting the disease. Women in these times were responsible for the medical provision and new jobs were created especially for them to take care of the patients and disinfect their houses after death/recovery from the illness. In the case where the patients recover, the women who took care of them would be rewarded with new social status and shillings (the old currency used before). This chapter emphasizes the importance of social connections even in the times of crisis, and there was a creation of informal networks of care carried out by women within urban communities.
Chapter 12 focuses on how Istanbul, specifically the Galata and Pera areas, dealt with the plague. The plague had been recurrent in these areas from the mid-14th century to the mid-19th century. Several plague hospitals, mainly managed by Europeans, were established. These hospitals became testing grounds for new plague medicines. Notably, these hospitals have cemeteries or “great burial grounds” as they call it. European physicians found something problematic during their visits – local workers have been selling or keeping the personal belongings of patients who died from the plague. The Ottoman empire collaborated with Europeans for politics, education, and public health measures during these times. The Europeans observed that the Turks embodied the danger of the plague and did not take sufficient precautions, particularly during the plague seasons (Spring and Summer). This led Europeans to practice seasonal relocation and quarantine measures, since the plague was seen as a natural occurrence for the locals. The outbreak of the plague in Galata-Pera fueled orientalist discourse, reinforcing cultural superiority by the Europeans and perpetuating misconceptions about the Ottoman Empire and its people.
Chapter 13 explores the role of religious rituals and the outbreak of cholera in shrine cities, specifically Qom and Mashhad in Iran during the 19th century. These cities were renowned for their pilgrimage sites, including the Fatima Shrine in Qom and the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Cholera is caused by the infection of the intestine, which causes extreme dehydration. Cholera was brought to these cities by pilgrims from India. The spread of cholera was facilitated by the waterways connected to the shrines, which were used for various purposes like drinking, washing bodies, washing clothes, and sewerage. Despite the outbreak, pilgrims relied on prayers and religious rituals for healing. The chapter presents examples of individuals claiming to be cured through drinking water poured over locks of the tomb or taking pills made from tomb dust. Efforts to prevent the outbreak involved prohibiting outsiders from visiting the shrines, and local sanitary councils implemented measures for public health. However, due to the strong religious beliefs and socio-cultural activities in Qom and Mashhad, people continued visiting the shrines despite the preventative measures.
Chapter 18 looks at the impact of inequality on the duration of an epidemic in São Paulo, Brazil, from 1971 to 1975. São Paulo experienced rapid economic growth during this period, leading to a sudden rise in rural migrants who settled in overcrowded places lacking basic infrastructure. Meningitis outbreak started due to these conditions. It started at the outskirts of the city and gradually spread toward the wealthier neighborhoods in the center. Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges, or the membrane protecting the brain and spinal cord. Academics, urbanists, and economists raised awareness about the disparities in the city, but response from the government only happened when influential individuals got affected by the illness. The government then launched a campaign, resulting in 80 million doses of the meningitis vaccine and vaccinating 10 million people within the first five days. After ten months, herd immunity was achieved. The chapter emphasizes the importance of basic facilities and vaccines as forms of infrastructure that can help immunize and protect the population.
- There are different ways on how societies handle an outbreak.
- Epidemics can reinforce biases and stereotypes about Eastern countries, which was supported by writings of European authors.
- Faith and cultural beliefs are important to people, and they continue to practice these even though there are risks.
- Lack of infrastructure affects the quality of life and healthy environments create healthy outcomes.
- Normal routine has been altered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the chapters discussed, there have been activities that were done because of it. For example, there has been a rise in volunteerism, especially when helping the frontliners, by giving them free transportation, food, and water. Intense restriction was also observed, especially in some of our lab mates’ countries, where barricades were set up for border control. In Japan, some universities gave assistance to foreign students who are especially affected during the lockdown. Efforts have been made, especially by people who can afford to help other people whose lives were affected due to the pandemic.
- Like the case study about São Paulo, Brazil, is external pressure required for change to happen in your fields of interest? External pressure in this context are people who can voice out concern to push change. Large scale sports events are making efforts to make events more sustainable due to external pressure. In the case of the other lab members, celebrities or influencers voicing concern about waste management in their countries gained a lot of attention and caused the government to be stricter with tackling waste management. An influential person is also needed to pay more attention to people with disabilities, especially during disasters. It was discussed that there are two kinds of change that can be brought about by pressures: the change brought by people and the change brought by catastrophic events, but these changes sometimes are only short term and serve as a quick response to different events.
To wrap up the book discussion, we discussed that change is indeed hard to make. A lot of different factors are considered, and while people may accept it, there will always be some people who will also oppose it. The idea of change is important, but we also need to consider how people would react and why they would react that way. Either way, strong leadership is required to make substantial change.
CDC plague. (n.d.). Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Plague. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/plague/faq.asp
General Information. (2022, September 30). CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/cholera/general/index.html#one
Gharipour, M., & DeClercq, C. (2021). Epidemic urbanism: Contagious diseases in global cities (pp. 82–151). Intellect Books.
Meningitis. (2023, April 24). CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/