Plague’s Progress by Arno Karlen

4th April 2020. We’re in the midst of the gravest health emergency any of us can remember. Hospitals around the world are filling up with people dying of the disease Covid-19. The UK economy has effectively been placed in a coma. To get an understanding of this contagion forget the conspiracy theories with which the Internet is awash. Forget the cataracts of twitter twaddle and facebook drivel. Turn to a reputable social history of disease.

25 years ago in 1995 Arno Karlen predicted that humanity could be heading towards a global pandemic. Karlen (1937 – 2010) ( was an American poet, psychoanalyst and popular science writer. He won the 1996 Rhone-Poulenc science book prize for Plague’s Progress which deals with the relationship between humans and disease.

Terrible diseases have wreaked havoc on human life since the dawn of history. The Black Death, the Great Plague, leprosy, smallpox: the very names now have a historical – almost a mythological – ring. With our space-age hospitals and wonder drugs, you might have thought we’d consigned pestilence to the past? Even AIDS didn’t succeed in persuading us otherwise.

Karlen shows how very mistaken any complacency in this regard is. He traces the continuities of disease from ancient times to the present day. Epidemics, he argues, are anything but over. Indeed, humanity might be making itself more vulnerable than ever.

In Plague’s Progress Karlen describes how waves of new diseases have happened in the past, at crucial times in human history, when humans dramatically changed their lives and environment. Today, by radically altering our landscape, technology and lifestyles, we have again invited new epidemics. Global travel, ‘super-spreader’ hub airports and vast networks of trade have made the world a village for microbes. Even new medical technology is creating new infections. Perhaps humans and microbes will long be in an intimate dance of mutual adaptation. How the tiny viral blighters must chuckle at our pathetic 200,000 years stint on the planet. Within their billions of years sweep on the planet we are merely a convenient organic site for replication. ( )

Most likely viruses will be around when we’re long extinct.

The late Roy Porter, the finest historian of medicine of his generation ( endorsed this book in The Observer as follows: ‘While avoiding hysteria, Karlen’s clear, complete survey affirms the total involvement of our fate as humans with the wider health of the planet. It’s a lesson our grasping, reckless and short-sighted species must learn fast’.

One thing of which Arno Karlen cannot be accused is being short-sighted. This book is proven prophetically true by events in the last weeks. I commend it to you during our lockdown time.

Full bibliographic detail for Plague’s Progress may be found at this link

272 pages in Orion hardback edition

First published in 1995

ISBN-13: 978-0575061354

Arno Karlen

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