Pandemics in Global Urban History: A Q&A with Antonio Carbone

The editors of the Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History join Antonio Carbone, author of a forthcoming Element in the series, to talk about the volume, its relevance to COVID-19, and the direction Carbone’s research is taking next.

Your Element is about pandemics—hard to be more timely! What was it like writing about pandemics while living through one?

Indeed, studying and writing about pandemics during a pandemic was a challenging and fascinating experience that got me questioning the general interest of studying the past. While other scholars can contribute directly to the discussion on current issues, as a historian you can feel quite useless in dealing with the past when present issues are so pressing. While sociologists were studying COVID-19, I retired to my bubble of past texts and sources concerning long-gone cholera epidemics and wondered how to make sense of it. Moreover, the comparative study of different pandemics—cholera, plague, and tuberculosis are what I examine in the Element—actually shows the uniqueness of each pandemic, and therefore that the classic saying ‘historia magistra vitae’ (history as life’s teacher) turns out to be rather hollow and vague.

Going back to the words you used, the feeling was not one of being timely at all. On the contrary, I rather felt a sense of untimeliness. However, I think this untimeliness can also be seen as a chance for history to occupy a relevant place in current debates. For although the kinds of questions historians ask of the past are in some way always related to their present, dealing with processes, actors, and sources from the past allows them to distance themselves from the present and gain a critical perspective on it. I borrow this idea from Achim Landwehr, who in turn was inspired by Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditation on History. Other scholars provide answers concerning the present and attempt to predict the future; historians can only deliver questions, albeit informed ones, when it comes to current issues. For example, it is difficult as a historian to provide informed analysis of the evolution of the number of cases of COVID-19 and the efficacy of vaccines; the often-invoked comparison to the so-called Spanish flu of the early twentieth century is not even much help. Nevertheless, as a historian, one can reconstruct long-term processes and highlight historical turning points, as well as continuities and ruptures between past and present.

Which aspects of the historical pandemics you discuss are most germane to COVID-19?

The current crisis has been described by some observers as inherent to the current regime of globalization, characterized by intercontinental commodity chains and by the free circulation of goods, capital, and (some) people across borders. The failure to contain the spread of the virus in a limited region of the globe has often been described as a specific feature of our era of all-pervading interconnectedness.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, cholera pandemics were often described in a similar way, as they interfered with the liberal free-trade narrative of some European empires and nations. Cholera, in fact, was an obstacle to the idea that the free and unimpeded circulation of goods, capital, and (some) people was automatically synonymous with progress; the same connections that were supposed to bring progress could also carry a disease like cholera that was considered a sign of backwardness. With the goal of limiting the spread of cholera, governments in various regions of the world implemented surveillance and quarantine regimes that severely restricted the free movement of people and goods. Restrictions on movement mostly targeted specific groups of people who were suspected of carrying cholera and therefore responsible for undermining the entire system of free circulation. The identification and stigmatization of supposedly dangerous groups and individuals was intimately tied to issues of race, ethnicity, religion, class, and gender. For example, the most severe restrictions on movement were regularly imposed on Muslim pilgrims traveling from South Asia to Mecca. The paradoxical idea of rigorously limiting the movement of some people in order to affirm the value of unimpeded movement of other people, goods, and capital had a further ambivalent outcome. In fact, while restrictions on Muslim pilgrims were certainly repressive in nature, they also called for a new level of peaceful international cooperation. When it came to cholera and the costly damage it caused to the movement of goods, empires and nations that otherwise were in conflict convened to find shared solutions, for example concerning maritime quarantine regulations to police the Mecca pilgrimage. The International Sanitary Conferences on cholera, held between 1851 and 1894, were a way to strengthen the imperial world order as a small number of representatives from a handful of European nations and empires made decisions for the entire globe; however, these meetings also laid the groundwork for future multilateral internationalist projects.

Looking at today’s situation through the lens of the history of cholera in the second half of the nineteenth century leads us to ask a series of questions: What kinds of mobility and interconnections are being restricted and controlled? Are there other connections that have been enhanced instead? Is COVID-19 questioning specific ways of conceiving the current world order? Has the crisis instead reinforced certain ways of envisioning international/transnational relations?

U.S. Public Health Service, “How typhoid fever, dysentery and cholera spread from person to person,” (ca. 1919-1929), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

COVID-19 has had a spatial impact as well as an epidemiological one. A lot of urban dwellers have moved out of cities, to suburbs and rural areas, so they are able to move about more freely outdoors and have more living space. Are there historical analogues to this temporary movement away from urban centers?

The direct historical analogue would certainly be the case of tuberculosis, which was pivotal in shaping conceptions of health based on outdoor living, exercise, clean air, and contact with “nature.” Some architectural historians see the origin of the aesthetic language of modern architecture in the architecture of the tuberculosis sanatorium, characterized by flat roofs, large windows, and wide balconies. The so-called urban flight was not only a reaction to tuberculosis; at the end of the nineteenth century, the fight against the disease played a key role in providing medical – and therefore objective – reasons for wealthier social groups to leave densely populated urban centers. The phenomenon usually referred to as suburbanization is also linked, to some extent, to tuberculosis and other contagious diseases, and has affected cities in various regions of the world in different ways and proportions. Not all cities are like early twentieth-century Chicago, with its concentric rings of wealthy suburbs and dilapidated neighborhoods. Within Western Europe, major differences can be seen; in big French or Italian cities suburbanization has never been as widespread as in Germany or Great Britain. These differences exist even though all of these big cities experienced extensive tuberculosis epidemics. So, while they play a rather central role in anti-urban discourses, contagious diseases are just one of many factors tied to the history of the movement away from urban centers.

In the last decades, also thanks to the lower sanitary pressure concerning contagious diseases, and especially tuberculosis, the process of suburbanization in many cities has been countered by a parallel process of gentrification, which has brought – to the detriment of other groups – affluent inhabitants back to dense urban centers. The resurgence of the contagious disease problem with the COVID-19 crisis has prompted some to leave or fantasize about leaving urban centers to have more freedom of movement. Consequently, the suburbs or rural areas have experienced a surge in interest and have enjoyed a new boost of symbolic power. The increase in so-called smart working options for white-collar workers has certainly opened new possibilities for the middle class to leave cities and, perhaps more importantly, for enterprises to cut on their costs for renting or buying office space. However, in the hope that the lockdown measures will not last forever, the ban on using public spaces may have strengthened the desire to actually do so. Expressed in more critical terms, the attractions of the ‘festivalized’ city centers are not likely to disappear abruptly. I suppose that just as gentrification and suburbanization have been parallel patterns in recent decades, both processes will continue to accompany us in the coming years. My hope is that instead of being faced with a new great wave of suburbanization, mindful of the distressing experiences of being deprived of public urban space, the focus will again be on the issues of accessibility and availability of housing and public space. One of the possible consequences of the COVID crisis is that, considering the upward trend of smart working, less office space will be needed in cities. If this is true, wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to change the structure of our cities to make them more accessible to all social classes, with abundant public space and green, affordable housing facilities? It would certainly not be the first time that a health crisis has prompted phenomena of change – not only temporarily – in urban space. 

Elements are written for a non-specialist audience. Who do you hope will read yours? What sort of impact would you like it to have?

I would be very happy if Epidemic Cities could be a read that inspires students of all backgrounds to ask critical questions about the crisis we have experienced over the past year and a half. Also, I would be very happy if it could spur readers to learn and investigate more about the history of cities and epidemics! 

How is the topic of your Element related to, or a departure from, your previous work?

My book Park, Tenement, Slaughterhouse: Elite Imaginaries of Buenos Aires (1852-1880), to be released by Campus Verlag in early 2022, deals with a series of dramatic cholera and yellow fever epidemics that struck Buenos Aires in the 1860s and 1870s. The core idea of the book, which is an elaboration of my doctoral dissertation, is that the history of epidemic disease and hygiene can tell us a great deal about urban space, the relationships between different social classes in cities, and the articulations of global and local forces. While it draws connections between Buenos Aires and other cities, especially from Europe and the American continent, the Argentine capital is the main focus of the study. In Epidemic Cities, I sought to develop and expand the temporal and geographical horizon of my research.

What are you working on next?

My main interest in investigating the history of epidemics and cities is a fascination with the history of spatial production. If space was at the center of my research until now, it also represents the very nucleus, albeit in other terms, of the new project I am working on. While I have previously worked on urban space, now I am focusing on the history of geopolitical imaginaries. My central idea is to investigate different historical configurations of ideas of the South as a political, cultural, and spatial category. My hypothesis is that we have learned a great deal in recent decades about the history of the imaginaries of East and West, and that instead, despite being two categories ubiquitous in current debate (see Global North and South), we know relatively little about the history of North and South. At the time being, I am working on a research project on the history of criticism of European integration and on alternative visions of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. For example, an alternative idea like Eurocommunism, proposed by the Italian, French, and Spanish communist parties, was primarily a political idea but with a strong spatial component. My thesis is that Eurocommunism was thought of as a possibility for the unification of Southern Europe away from both the orbit of NATO and the Warsaw Pact and open instead to close ties with what today we would call the “Global South.”  


Antonio Carbone studied philosophy, history, and urban studies in Rome and Berlin. He has taught global history at the Free University and the Technical University in Berlin as well as at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). He received his PhD from the Technical University in Berlin in 2019. For his dissertation research, he spent extended periods in the archives of Buenos Aires and at Columbia University in New York. After a period as a fellow of the Max Weber Foundation and as guest researcher at the Viadrina Institute for European Studies, since 2021 he has been a research associate at the German Historical Institute in Rome.

Featured image (at top): Lewis Wickes Hine, “American Red Cross worker explaining the Anti-tuberculosis campaign at the American Red Cross Child Welfare Exhibition at St. Etienne” (1918), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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