Updated: Jul 20, 2020
In our incessant struggle with the current pandemic, we have overlooked the persistence and threats posed by the longest running pandemic in the world- Cholera. Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. Fundamentally, cholera is an outcome of a lack of adequate safe water and sanitation. However, despite being a preventable and manageable disease, it continues to kill millions of poor people globally, making it the most fatal disease to affect the world. Its impact is highly iniquitous. For the longest time, there were several mysteries surrounding “Blue Death” as cholera was nicknamed, until 1854, when British physician John Snow presented a revelatory map to prove that cholera was indeed a water borne infection.
While the Global North has largely beaten the disease over the years, it remains endemic in more than 47 poorer nations of the Global South due to the poor status of public health infrastructure and lack of political will. The global map of Cholera is essentially the same as the map of extreme poverty. For instance, Yemen, the country facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world is also ravaged by Cholera with more than 50 suspected cases of cholera reported for every hour of the last five years.
Although the two pandemics vary in their degrees of transmission, the global history of Cholera has many lessons for us to deal with health emergencies that do not respect borders. Neil Singh’s powerful article ‘Cholera and Coronavirus: why we must not repeat the same mistakes’ on The Guardian, tellingly compares the way in which the world is reacting to COVID19 with how it has handled cholera, especially in the poorer countries of the Global South. While words like ‘unprecedented’ are often used to describe the nature and intensity of COVID-19, Neil’s article discerns certain commonalities in our responses to the two different pandemics that threaten the world. He says "disasters like pandemics are never just destructive – they also induce change, and often spark scientific developments and social reforms." The article also deeply engages with the issue of structural disparity and inequalities in the global health systems. Global health in many ways remains a modern iteration of colonial practices where creation of healthy spaces and medicines was largely confined to the elite and industrial areas of the cities inhabited by the colonizers. As the author says in the article, “if we allow global health to be funded and governed by the old colonial logic that is embedded in its current structures, then the story will play out as it did for cholera.” Through this article, he warns the world of the fallacies in our old ways of dealing with pandemics and reminds us that in our current and future pursuits we must not exacerbate global divides by selectively applying solutions to protect only the richer half of the world.