The Ebola outbreak that has spread from West Africa to the United States has led Americans to debate how best to balance the nation’s common wealth and private wealth. The nation’s health is part of its common wealth. Many argue that mobilizing to fight Ebola is a matter of national security.
But securing our common wealth comes with certain costs to our private wealth. Americans might face travel restrictions, or even quarantine if they have been exposed to others with the disease. Health care workers will be required to work in dangerous conditions. And, of course, higher taxes might be necessary to pay for the cost of fighting Ebola.
The World Health Organization has reported 8,914 cases of Ebola over the course of the epidemic, with 4,447 deaths. Most of the cases are in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Concerns about the disease increased this week after two health care workers at a Texas hospital where an Ebola victim was treated were diagnosed with the disease. This led the CDC to reconsider its protocols for dealing with infected patients.
Scientists have tried to prevent panic by emphasizing that Ebola spreads through infected fluids, such as vomit and blood, and does not spread through the air.
Smallpox and the Revolution
During the American Revolution, smallpox epidemics caused panic and forced both British and American forces to consider new strategies for battling the disease as well as each other.
Unlike Ebola, the smallpox virus was highly communicable. Military camps were especially vulnerable, since soldiers were crowded together and moved about a lot. Historians estimate that during the Revolution, smallpox killed far more people than all the battles combined.
Smallpox severely limited the impact of the “Ethiopian Regiment” formed after Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to slaves who escaped their rebel masters to join the British forces. “Dozens died daily” in the summer of 1776, according to one eyewitness.
Dunmore wrote, “Had it not been for this horrid disorder, I should have had two thousand blacks; with whom I should have had no doubt of penetrating into the heart of [Virginia].”
Early in the war, the British military started practicing an early form of inoculation, sometimes called “taking the disorder.” The inoculations slowed the spread of the disease, though they also caused the disease in some and temporarily incapacitated many who were inoculated.
Americans initially chose to quarantine infected soldiers, which ultimately failed to slow the repeated outbreaks. Some soldiers refused to act for the common good. “John McGuire is ordered to the Small Pox hospital but declines at going,” noted one army surveyor.
While few 18th-century Americans travelled very far from home, war conditions contributed to spreading smallpox. Troops returning home often took disease with them.
Even Americans far from battle feared their community might be the next site for an outbreak. After men from Caroline County in Virginia brought smallpox home with them in 1777, a denizen wrote of his expectation that they would “spread the disorder thro’ America.”
Ultimately, George Washington reversed his policy in 1777 and ordered a mass inoculation, which historians credit as contributing to the American victory.