Epidemics have played an important role in modern European history. In particular, epidemic diseases have been a frequently repeated feature of human history up to the present day. A classic example of such a disease in Europe during the 1800s is cholera. This disease caused profuse diarrhea, severe dehydration, collapse, and often death. As cholera travelled throughout towns and cities, it took advantage of overcrowded housing conditions, poor hygiene and insanitary water-supplies. Studies suggested that these conditions might almost have been designed for it. Furthermore, cholera affected the poor more than the well-off and the rich due to lack of sanitary attention. This led to the judgement of the poor and how people blamed them for causing the disease of cholera. However, when it spread to the middle classes, they needed to address a different cause for cholera.
Cholera spread in a series of a waves or pandemics. The disease made isolated appearances in Europe and was regarded as the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century. Still, three major questions are to be addressed about cholera. First, was the psychological and social impact of cholera powerful enough to enable the absolute numbers of people affected and was its impact minor compared to tuberculosis? Second, did cholera epidemics play a part in the major political disruptions of the nineteenth century? Thirdly, did people blame the state for outbreaks of cholera, and did this lead to any changes in state policy from country to country?
In terms of its spread, the cholera bacillus enters the body through the mouth and the digestive system. The subsequent symptoms include massive vomiting and diarrhea. Cholera was shocking to the nineteenth century; it was considered a disease that came from the “uncivilized” east. To address the first question, cholera seemed to affect healthy adults just as much as, or even more than, it affected they young and old, the sickly and the weak. Cholera affected the poor more than the rich, “and the widespread middle class view that the poor only had themselves to blame was hardly calculated to mollify the apprehensions of the poor.”1 In addition, the “undeserving” poor were the most affected because the poor did not have access to clean water and sanitization while the well-off or the rich did. In turn, the poor could easily interpret the immunity of the bourgeoisie as evidence of unfairness on the part of the rich to reduce the burden of poverty by killing off the main victims.
Clear evidence of the social distribution of the disease is difficult to say, but the “distribution of cholera obviously to some extent reflected whether or not a local water-supply had been contaminated... proximity to infected water was itself at least in part socially determined...”2 It was sad to see that the poor were blamed for the cause of the disease because it is unfair to the poor since they cannot afford to have better sanitization. Statistics suggested that while it could and did affect the well-off and the rich, its impact on the poor was disproportionately high in most epidemics like cholera. Because of their wealth, the rich could flee from outbreaks with ease and their occupations did not have to deal with contact with contaminated water and with their employment of servants. Moreover, their toilet facilities were maintained well. One could see the differential impact of cholera between the rich and the poor which worsened social tensions. The poor suffered because of overcrowding and poor sanitation, and because they could not employ servants to take necessary hygienic precautions. However, they are not the one to blame for the cause of the cholera epidemic.
According to Sir Edwin Chadwick, “various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the laboring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and...
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