Pandemics and Economics in History #9

“Amateur in Econ-Land: Is the Intersection with Race Near Here?”

Pandemics and Economics in History #9: Amateur in Econ-Land

Previous podcasts in this series have primarily used the kind of third-person voice that gathers material from several sources and reports those in a style suggesting journalistic or academic objectivity. I have confessed in previous episodes that I’m not a historian or economist and that I’m learning as we go along. Those who are finding this series through my Community thru Covid show on We Act Radio probably know a fair amount about me from that work. This particular podcast episode, I think, requires being more direct about my background.

Locating the Podcaster

I am a fair-skinned, once-blond, blue-eyed straight woman who has lived in the District since 1988, in an area now called “Hill East.” I am originally from Chicago, and so was born into a kind of racial and ethnic hyper-segregation peculiar to that town. My West Side neighborhood experienced red-lining, panic-pedaling, Urban Renewal, and an attempt at creating a historical district — all, I believe, textbook examples of race intersecting with economics. I then lived briefly in the Chicago’s Hyde Park and South Shore neighborhoods before I left the city, followed by a few years each in New Brunswick, NJ and Boston, MA — each providing a new seminar in race and urban affairs — before we settled in DC.

As it happens, I lived, quite literally, on or near Race Street for most of my Chicago years, and race was simply always a part of my life — experienced, of course, through the lens of my white privilege.

My early schooling was Eurocentric and, I later learned, quite old-fashioned for the time. My college studies were informed by University of Chicago ideas of what was classic, even after I moved on from there. Any formal studies were always influenced, however, by additional reading and learning and by very early home-teaching which insisted I question everything, ask who was telling a story, whose voice was being heard and whose might be left out.

That’s part of what I bring when I open a book, like The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, often quoted in these podcasts.

That Location and The Plague Cycle

In an attempt to follow-up on that shift from “light and air” to “flexible and efficient” healthcare spaces, I returned to Charles Kenny’s The Plague Cycle. It includes a quotation from Florence Nightingale — who is widely credited with promoting light and air as necessary for disease recovery and prevention — followed by an editorial analysis.

Here’s the quote from Nightingale:

The disease-germ festish, and the witchcraft-fetish, are the produce of the same mental condition….The germ hypothesis, if logically followed out, must stop all human intercourse whatever, on pain or risk of disease or death.
— Nightingale (full reference below), quoted in Kenny, The Plague Cycle, p.91

And here’s what Kenny says next:

Nightingale’s fears were prophetic. Isolation remains a powerful tool to reduce the spread of disease, but when it is applied as a permanent measure to “high-risk groups” rather than sick individuals, exclusion can be the cause of considerable harm.
The Plague Cycle, p.91

This is followed by a paragraph on “trimming of liberties” around tuberculosis outbreaks in Britain, one about the US Immigration Act of 1891 and the resultant increase in people refused at the border on medical grounds, and another on US immigration at the Mexican border in the last century. The word “racist” is used in the context of response to Chinese immigrants during an outbreak of plague in San Francisco in 1900. Never once in the chapter is anti-Black racism mentioned explicitly, and it’s only vaguely hinted at elsewhere in the book.

The only other indexed mention of race or racism, in fact, is a sweeping summary earlier in this same chapter: “Nativists, racists, bigots, and the rich have always been prone to use disease outbreaks combined with the exclusion instinct as an opportunity to act on their theories of superiority” (Kenny, The Plague Cycle, p.83)

In an earlier podcast, I noted that Kenny speaks of disease-inspired pogroms against Jews and accusations against Muslims in Christian Europe without once mentioning the Crusades. It seemed impossible to me to discuss impulses which brought about the Lepers Plot of 1347 without mentioning the basic historical situation. It is unclear to me, as an outsider in the world of Economics or Economic history, whether that background is assumed here or whether there simply isn’t room to discuss it in a book of this length for general readers….or whether it’s somehow not noticed.

Similarly, I am entirely at a loss as to how the topic of Florence Nightingale’s views on cleanliness is raised in a chapter on “The Exclusion Instinct” without mentioning the wider colonial, racist background of her beliefs and the ways in which practices she recommended were employed. We’ll have to pause this week’s installment with my puzzlement, leaving further exploration to another day.

In closing: anyone with resources or comments to share, please do.


Kenny, Charles. The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. NY: Scribner, 2021. Booktalk on C-SPAN in January. Also available on YouTube.

Nightingale, Florence. “Remarks by Miss Nightingale” IN J Clarke Jervoise, Infection with Remarks by Miss Nightingale. 1867, p.62-63. (Bottom source from Kenny’s book.)

More on Nightingale to come; bio of Charles Kenny for additional location:

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow and the director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development. He is author of many articles and books, including The Plague Cycle, which has been cited a number of times in the course of this podcast series.

Mr. Kenny studied modern history at Cambridge, Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

He was born and raised in Great Britain and now lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter. He blogs at

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