Written during the COVID-19 pandemic, this paper began in an attempt to understand why, after 100 years since the most devasting pandemic in modern history, the world was faced with yet another, but more importantly how people responded to this new normal. In order to understand better how society today responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to know the past and see what has emerged with each new pandemic. For the purpose of this thesis, I examine the cholera epidemics of 1831-1866, the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the polio epidemics of the mid-twentieth century in British history. The thesis argues that the responses to each of these three pandemics were characterized by public mistrust of both government and medical authority as well as reluctance from officials to respond to each disease.
Each of these three pandemics had significant impacts on British society, and while they are by no means the only pandemics to have occurred in British history in modern times, they were chosen for specific reasons. First, the diseases themselves did not discriminate in who they attacked. While certain demographics felt the physical effects of these pandemics more heavily than others in the time period I have focused on, no social class or age group was spared (though social class remained a vital factor in how government responded, as I will show). Second, the societal outcomes of each of these pandemics built on one another. When cholera first arrived in Britain in 1831, no significant governmental authority existed that was charged with the public’s health, and yet by 1948, in the midst of the polio epidemics, the National Health Service (NHS) was established. Thus, it is through these three pandemics that I believe we can best trace the shifting relationship between society, the state, and the medical authorities, because if cholera, influenza, and polio all resulted in the changes to the British public healthcare system, then perhaps COVID-19 will have a similar impact as those that came before it, and will help society better understand the human reaction to pandemics.
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