Friday, January 22, 2021

Charles Kenny's "The Plague Cycle"

Charles Kenny is a writer-researcher at the Center for Global Development and has worked on policy reforms in global health as well as UN peacekeeping and combating international financial corruption. Previously, he spent fifteen years as an economist at the World Bank, travelling the planet from Baghdad and Kabul to Brasilia and Beijing. He is the author of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More, and The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Great for the West. He earned a history degree at Cambridge and has graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and Cambridge.

Kenny applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Plague Cycle and reported the following:
Page 99 is the opening of The Plague Cycle’s sixth chapter on the history of sanitation, “Cleaning Up.” It introduces the instinctual and behavioral response to stay clean to avoid infection, discussing the fact that high status apes get the best grooming services. And it reports on recent academic studies linking the spiciness of cuisines to the burden of infectious diseases where they developed (Norwegian cooking: bland, Mexican cooking: hot). I hope that gives a good taste of the whole: the book is meant to be an accessible, enjoyable account of humanity’s struggle with infectious disease that is grounded in the latest research.

The chapter discusses sewage systems from the 5,000 year old network in Mohenjo Daro in modern day Pakistan through the efforts to clean up London during the Black Death to the massive infrastructure and workforce that underpins sanitation in today’s New York City. And it is a reminder that a lot of the techniques we’ve needed to control infectious disease are both very old and still very much under-utilized.

While medical technologies like vaccinations and antibiotics have allowed megacities to grow even in places where sewage networks, trash trucks and sanitary inspectors are underfunded and underdeveloped, the infectious threat lingers when we don’t clean up. Children are much more likely to be infested with worms or to come down with a deadly case of diarrhea. The food and water that people consume is more likely to harbor microbes from cholera to campylobacter. If they are unsanitary, factory farms are more likely to spawn a new disease that could jump species --like Nipah virus did from pigs or measles from cattle.

And Covid-19 has brought back into fashion some long-utilized sanitary techniques. I discuss in the book that while Marco Polo was in China he attended a banquet at which the waiters had “their mouths and noses swathed in fine napkins of silk and gold, so that the food and drink are not contaminated by their breath or effluence.” It is another a sign that for all the technological progress we’ve made against infectious disease over the past hundred years, we could still benefit a lot more from everyone using ancient approaches from social distancing through tracing and isolating the sick.
Visit Charles Kenny's blog and learn about his six favorite books.

The Page 99 Test: The Upside of Down.

--Marshal Zeringue