How will the response to COVID-19 shape our world, and especially the role of public health science in society? Past disease outbreaks offer some clues. In the twentieth century, tuberculosis, influenza, polio and HIV/AIDS influenced attitudes about hygiene and personal space. Germ theories justified many public health measures--such as examinations and case tracing--and also fostered the development of vaccines. The broadcast of ideas about germs, from the telegraph to the internet, has also deeply influenced social responses to pandemics, including the stigma experienced by some social groups. The concept of “flattening the curve,” and the flood of statistics that accompany it, illustrate how the modern concept of germs has shaped and will continue to shape our approach to global health crises.
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