From the Cholera Riots to the Coronavirus Revolts

The more punitive the approach to public health, the fiercer the backlash.


As a pandemic swept through Europe in 1831, a riot broke out in Königsberg. "Groups of people who did not agree with the cholera regulations assembled [on July 28] for the funeral of a journeyman carpenter," the Prussian State Gazette reported. After refusing a request to disperse, the dissenters "invaded the Police building and threw files and papers into the street. The military fired on the crowd and eight people were killed." The newspaper attributed the revolt to "a general misunderstanding of the interpretation of the measures against the cholera."

The historian Richard S. Ross offers a more detailed account in his 2015 book Contagion in Prussia, 1831. The rioters believed that the carpenter had died not from cholera but from a medication prescribed to treat him; they also chafed at the quarantines and other cholera rules that interfered with their ability to go about their lives. Many of them believed a conspiracy theory in which the disease itself was a government plot to cull the lower classes. By the chief of police's account, the rioters shouted that "the doctors are poisoning the poor, the police drag them to the lazaret and close up their houses, saying they have to go because they are poor." By the end of the upheaval, there had been looting, armed clashes in the streets, and hundreds of arrests.

Ross suspects there was more method to the crowds' actions than you might conclude from contemporaneous accounts of an irrational mob. When those angry funeral-goers stormed the police building, he notes, they took the opportunity to destroy "police records and other papers concerned with cholera and quarantine measures." (With a nod to that conspiracy theory, they also chanted "We want the cholera germs.")

This episode may sound strange, but it wasn't unusual. Similar cholera riots broke out across Europe that year, and still more erupted periodically for decades afterward. As you'd expect, these took somewhat different forms in different places. In Russia, they prompted a brutally repressive response; in England, such ferocity was rare. Italy's cholera uprisings intersected with the revolt against the Bourbon monarchy; in France, where a relatively liberal government had come to power in 1830, the upheaval got a boost instead from the political right. The left-leaning historian Samuel K. Cohn notes these variations, and others, in a 2017 article (squeamishly titled "Cholera revolts: a class struggle we may not like") for the journal Social History. But overall, he reports, the riots had more similarities than differences: "the content and character of the conspirac[y theories], divisions by social class, and the targets of rioters' wrath were uncannily similar."

The more high-handed the ruling classes were, the more likely they were to be targeted by rumors and revolt. The riots persisted longest, Cohn writes, "where elites continued to belittle the supposed 'superstitions' of villagers, minorities, and the poor, violated their burial customs and religious beliefs, and imposed stringent anti-cholera regulations even after most of them had been proven to be ineffectual. Moreover, ruling elites in these places addressed popular resistance with military force and brutal repression. By contrast, distrust and rumours of purposeful poisoning abated where elite attitudes and impositions changed." As Königsberg and other Prussian cities were rioting in 1831, the authorities in Berlin loosened the local cholera regulations; the government and middle-class charities also organized relief efforts. Berlin did not riot.

The violence of the 19th century cholera revolts makes a striking contrast with the upheaval inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic. The unrest in America hasn't been entirely nonviolent—more than one prison riot has broken out—but in the un-incarcerated sectors of the U.S., the resistance we've seen so far has looked more like civil disobedience. In Idaho, Ammon Bundy organized an illicit Easter service. In North Carolina, more than 100 marchers paraded through downtown Raleigh; another group hopes to do the same this Friday in Carolina Beach. In Michigan, protesters convoyed to Lansing to protest the state's unusually restrictive stay-at-home order. On a less political note, speakeasies have surfaced in New York, in San Francisco, and elsewhere.

The authorities have responded haphazardly to such defiance, sometimes trying to crack down and sometimes not. There is a tension at the heart of the government's coronavirus response: The same public health concerns that inspired these new rules have given us good reasons to roll back a lot of the state's traditional enforcement mechanisms.

Start with the biggest weapon in the authorities' arsenal: incarceration. Prisons and jails have been hotspots for spreading the disease, both behind bars and in communities located nearby. Some jurisdictions have tried to ease the crowding by releasing prisoners who are elderly or were convicted of nonviolent crimes. If you're doing that, it doesn't make much sense to simultaneously fill the jails with nonviolent lockdown scofflaws—or even to arrest them, given that it's hard to book someone while social-distancing. (That last issue is surely running through a lot of officers' minds right now, as the coronavirus infects police departments. At one point in New York, nearly 20 percent of the police department's uniformed workforce was out sick. In Detroit, the police chief just got through a bout with COVID-19—and both the captain of the homicide department and the commander of the county jail are dead.)

What other tools are in the enforcers' box? One is to impose fines. That doesn't pose direct public health problems, but it brushes up uneasily against another COVID-era reform impulse: the effort to suspend people's debts while the economy has ground to a halt. Some governments have turned to roadblocks and checkpoints—blunt tools that can certainly be effective in reducing people's movements, but which may have unintended consequences too. ("With checkpoints looming," writes Phil Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research, "some people may start to weigh the risk of being stuck there for a long time, of being cut off from family and loved ones in other states, or of having to deal with increasingly draconian police enforcement in their own home towns." This could prompt them to travel while they still can, exactly the opposite of what the checkpoints were supposed to accomplish.) If the cops have trouble cracking down on a business's patrons, they still might crack down on the business itself; in Cincinnati, police simply boarded up a bar that refused to cooperate with a shutdown order. That may work when you're handling a few holdouts with fixed addresses, but it's unclear how well it would scale.

And then there are the departments that send drones to try to shame people into compliance. The intrusiveness of this tactic shouldn't blind you to the fact that it's ultimately a form of persuasion rather than coercion. (Whether it's an effective form of persuasion is another matter.) That may be a deliberate choice. As the Financial Times reports, in a story covering the ways different police forces have dealt with the outbreak in Britain, many officials have decided that "a more consensual approach…is likely to prove more effective at containing the disease."

The Duke historian Gabriel Rosenberg has suggested an interesting parallel between the current pandemic and the history of controlling the epidemics that afflict livestock. When the federal government created the Bureau of Animal Industry in 1884, the new agency was given extensive powers to enter private property and to seize infected or exposed animals. But the people running the bureau quickly realized that a purely punitive approach could backfire: Farmers "would do everything they could to conceal evidence of illness, to quietly treat sick animals themselves, to avoid public veterinary health officials and finally to stealthily transport their stock out of the quarantine zones and sell them in other markets. Rather than containing illness, such responses would spread disease further and could accelerate small outbreaks into devastating pandemics." So the government adopted an additional tactic—it started compensating farmers for their losses. Rosenberg suggests that the authorities do something similar with human quarantines: If you're telling people to stop plying their trades, pay them to stay home.

That makes more sense than the repressive approach: The government may be bad at many things, but no one doubts its ability to pay people not to work. Whether it will direct those payments appropriately is a different question. To judge from the contents of the CARES Act, and from the virtually unaccountable way the feds have been distributing that money, most of the relief funds will end up in the hands of whoever has the best lobbyists, not whoever has the greatest needs.

But Rosenberg's core point is valid. "Quarantines are rarely effective if they do not encourage voluntary cooperation from potentially exposed populations," he writes. "If quarantines establish an oppositional relationship between public health authorities and exposed populations, they often fail." And sometimes they do more than fail. Just ask the burghers of Königsberg.