In the Fall of 2020, when groping cautions filled newspapers and universities announced hasty measures to take their history seminars online, I spent a hurried week re-writing my syllabi on British empire to investigate the history of disease.
Across the British empire, among the most fearsome epidemics were the plagues of malaria and cholera. Both have moral lessons to teach present-day readers about the shape of disease. Part of what they can tell us about is the importance of shared infrastructure past. Both diseases had all but vanished from Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. Both diseases endure across Asia and Latin America today, testimony to where money was spent—and where money was not spent.
Many readers know about how cholera inspired Europeans to rebuild their cities. Cholera epidemics prompted the building of municipal sewers and water supplies. But when it came to building sewers for European colonial capitals—say Delhi or Madras—thrift rather than health was the law. As a result, cholera continues to rage across India to this day. European travelers and Indian elites are vaccinated.
The lesson of cholera is about the importance of spending money on infrastructure when an emergency strikes. Bottom line: how much we’re willing to invest in reaching everyone right now can determine whether, ten years from now, we look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a distant memory: or whether the COVID-19 pandemic and epidemics like it become a poor peoples’ disease, endemic to certain nations and countries, considered beyond our power to fight.
But identifying the disease did not solve the problem of malaria in most places; it proposed another solution, but not one that the world could afford. The cost of fighting mosquitos across the world was staggering, especially in places left in poverty by European colonialism. Malaria still ravages communities in large parts of Africa and India today; there were 219 million cases in Africa in 2017 alone.
In Britain and the United States, cholera epidemics prompted communities to invest in sewerage for poor neighborhoods as well as rich ones—and eventually to invest in public water supplies serving all communities. Because of cholera—a disease that spread from poor neighborhoods to rich, refusing to discriminate between rich and poor—London and Paris began to invest in city-wide sewer systems and later systems for insuring clean drinking water for all.
But coronavirus spreads in ways that challenge the preventative measures taken in 19th Century cities. The six- to nine-feet distance required for social distancing means that any public space—from the playground to the classroom to the dormitory or beach—is potentially toxic. Home WiFi and cell phone signals have become the modern infrastructure of sanitation: like clean air and water, they keep families safe from the disease, securing some communities but not others.
There are two possible lessons of history for this epidemic: one is about the likely results of freelance data collection, and the other is about the importance of technology in providing safety to as many populations as possible.
The second lesson of past diseases is that broadcast technology has been one major way of fighting disease, and new commitments to technology often come in their wake. If the sanitary technology of cholera was the sewers, the sanitary technology of the coronavirus are those technologies that connect us and allow us to work at a distance—the infrastructure for mass video calls, the tools to collaborate on co-authored documents, shared data troves that many individuals, companies, and governments can use to find results and innovate through the emergency, and broadband.
The lesson of malaria is that the communities that are cut off from infrastructure today stand to be put permanently behind tomorrow. Today, some activists are reaching out for early releases from detention centers and jails; others are looking into making sure that inmates have access to the internet. What if some communities began to look upon basic sanitation and access to WiFi as part of the basic sanitation that even prisoners and immigrants detained at the border deserve? Investments in common infrastructure means greater resilience in a time of crisis. There are opportunities here for WiFi and broadband providers and the hosts of data repositories to propose a new vision of what the connected—and safe—city looks like, and to sell that vision to the communities that can afford to make a bold investment in their collective resilience.
Similarly, communities that build up shared repositories of data—including digitized, appropriately anonymized records of managerial phone calls, classrooms, city management, and telemedicine visits—will supply data analysts with the material to find patterns and create discoveries that can lead to ongoing innovation even during the pandemic. By treating data as a shared infrastructure of community life, rather than the private preserve of a few monopolies, those communities will open up the possibility of a world where universities and even high-school students make their own discoveries about the transmission of the disease, or even about the best and worst practices of a world characterized by online learning, management, medicine, and social interaction.
As the FBI warnings over Zoom failures this week have demonstrated, it is crucial that we make collective investments in forms of technology that allow more people to work remotely. In a world where more and more people are called upon to work remotely, communities will be served by infrastructure that enables connectivity.
Finally, one of the lessons of past epidemics is that those that are left behind today may be left behind for a long time to come. London and Paris got clean drinking water by the close of the nineteenth century, but clean water is out of reach for significant stretches of the world across Asia, Africa and Latin America—a fact that will doubtless contribute to the spread of the coronavirus in those communities, as it has contributed to the intractability of other diseases for a long time.
Nations and cities around the world will be asking themselves, facing this epidemic, whether they can afford utilities of various kinds—from sewerage and drinking water to community broadband and Wi-Fi. It is worth remembering that failing to secure that infrastructure now will leave a community in the lurch facing future challenges of all kinds. The question for poor communities from prisons to immigrants to slums to stretches of the developing world should be not: “Can we afford it?” but: “What is the cost of permanently ejecting that community from our own? How much more might those individuals contribute to our world—tallied not over a year but over a lifetime—if they had been included in our plans?” Infrastructure is always expensive; it is only when tallied across lifetimes, cities, and regions that it begins to look like a profoundly wise investment.