Photo Credit Michael Mercier

Dr. Nicole Pacino, associate professor in the Department of History in The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System, has published a recent article, "Disease Outbreaks and State Legitimacy in Post-Revolutionary Bolivia" for the academic journal The Latin Americanist. The article explores three epidemic episodes in 1950s Bolivia. The project came out of Pacino's broader research on public health initiatives in Bolivia in the 1950s and the 1960s, after the 1952 National Revolution.

Abstract: This article explores three epidemic episodes in 1950s Bolivia: a typhus outbreak in Oruro in September 1954, a typhoid outbreak in Cochabamba in January 1956, and a polio outbreak along the Bolivia-Argentine border in March 1956. Each case discusses state-imposed quarantine and sanitation measures, using newspaper reports and editorials, letters to health officials, and government publications to document institutional responses to these epidemic episodes and people's reactions. Through press coverage, the article analyzes praise and critiques of government responses to these epidemics to assess what measures public health authorities implemented, how effective they were, and how Bolivians felt about their political and medical leadership during these crises. These case studies evidence that Bolivians did not respond uniformly to government containment policies, and responses varied by region and disease. They also demonstrate that quarantines are effective even if not always popular, and that the public's perception of the measures' efficacy and implementation impact their feelings about state legitimacy. Finally, they show that disease outbreaks create opportunities for citizens to critique government officials and push for improvements to public health.

While examining the 1950's, the themes of outbreaks, quarantines, and questioning political and medical leadership are ripped from headlines today. Along with several other historians, Pacino was hosted on a recent episode of the "Historias Podcast" to connect their research to current-day Bolivia. The panel explores such critical actors and elements as the military, miners, cruceño elites, and public health in contemporary Bolivia by placing them in broader historical arcs to present a complex picture of this Andean nation. You can listen to the complete podcast here or below.

"As the world currently reels from a global pandemic, it is easy to feel isolated, scared, and uncertain. Yet, as my research shows, people in the past have faced infectious disease outbreaks and crises of state legitimacy, and societies have emerged from them, although not always unscathed. Epidemics can exacerbate social divisions and aggravate political tensions, but these crisis moments can also create opportunities to change society for the better. It is too early to know how the current pandemic will end, but the lessons of the past are, and will continue to be, useful for understanding the present moment."

Dr. Pacino regularly teaches classes on modern Latin America for interested students.

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