What Hamburg's Missteps In 1892 Cholera Outbreak Can Teach Us About COVID-19 Response Lesson No. 1: Have "proper precautions in place," says historian Richard Evans. And don't "try to hush it up." Thousands died in Hamburg after the government failed to acknowledge a cholera outbreak.

What Hamburg's Missteps In 1892 Cholera Outbreak Can Teach Us About COVID-19 Response

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/849996451/855096264" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to history for some guidance on how to manage the global coronavirus pandemic. In Germany, some have been recalling a cholera outbreak from 1892.

NPR's Rob Schmitz takes a look back.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: When Richard Evans researched the history of pandemics for a book he was working on, he came away with a valuable warning that rings true today.

RICHARD EVANS: Almost every epidemic you can think of is that the first reaction of any government is to say, no, no, it's not here. We haven't got it, you know. Or it's only mild or it's not going to have a big effect.

SCHMITZ: In nearly every case, says Evans, governments that have made these reassurances have been wrong - sometimes exceptionally so, as he outlines in his book, "Death In Hamburg" about that city's cholera outbreak 130 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE ACADEMIC MALE CHOIR OF THE ESTONIAN SSR PERFORMANCE OF SIBELIUS' "KULLERVO")

SCHMITZ: It was 1892, the year Finnish composer Jean Sibelius premiered his symphonic suite "Kullervo" based on the tragic character of a Finnish poem who realizes the same people who brought him up were the ones who had killed his family. The lesson - don't trust those who take care of you - was a good fit for what was about to happen to the people of Hamburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE ACADEMIC MALE CHOIR OF THE ESTONIAN SSR PERFORMANCE OF SIBELIUS' "KULLERVO")

SCHMITZ: At the end of the 19th century, the city-state was the fourth-largest port in the world, a popular jumping-off point for Europeans heading to America. It was run by merchant families who put trade and the economy above the welfare of its residents. At the time, microbiologist Robert Koch discovered the pathogen for cholera, a disease transmitted through excrement in water.

But Hamburg's leaders refused to spend money to treat its water supply. Instead, they insisted Koch was wrong. Cholera, they claimed, was spread by an invisible vapor no government could prevent. But in August of that year, a Russian migrant waiting to embark for America went to the bathroom in Hamburg. He was sick with cholera, and his excrement ended up in the river - the same river the city drew on for its tap water, says Evans.

EVANS: And it was delivered to everyone who had a water supply connection. And 10,000 people died, roughly speaking, within about six weeks. It was an absolute catastrophe.

SCHMITZ: Made worse by Hamburg's government - it waited six days before telling anyone about the epidemic. By then, thousands were ill. And the leaders of the city had to admit their nemesis, Robert Koch, was right. And the only way out of this mess was to invite Koch himself to guide them.

Christoph Gradmann is a medical historian at the University of Oslo.

CHRISTOPH GRADMANN: In the situation of an ongoing outbreak, the attention of the public focuses on the scientists providing information.

SCHMITZ: He says the lesson is that health institutions have to have political support and be well-funded before an epidemic hits. Historian Richard Evans agrees, and he adds a lesson for political leaders.

EVANS: One of the lessons we need to learn is to have proper precautions in place - proper measures in reserve to roll out when an epidemic hits and not to try and hush it up or try and deny its existence.

SCHMITZ: Evans says this lesson not only applies to today's pandemic but also to global climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE ACADEMIC MALE CHOIR OF THE ESTONIAN SSR PERFORMANCE OF SIBELIUS' "KULLERVO")

SCHMITZ: Back in 1892, the betrayal theme from the Sibelius symphony played out in Hamburg. After thousands died, Robert Koch and his team imposed restrictions on people's movements, disinfected homes and ordered people to only drink from a newly built clean water supply. A year later, Hamburg citizens voted their incompetent businessmen leaders out of office and replaced them with Social Democrats, a working-class party that prioritized science and health over profit.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE ACADEMIC MALE CHOIR OF THE ESTONIAN SSR PERFORMANCE OF SIBELIUS' "KULLERVO")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.