Coinciding with the pandemic, he has recovered the Capitan Swing publishing house, The Ghost Map, by the scientist and popularizer Steven Johnson. A work in which the author takes an exhaustive tour of the cholera epidemic that London suffered in the mid-nineteenth century and that helps us to reflect and better understand the current situation.
The ghost map opens with an accurate, harrowing – and at times scatological – overview of bustling London in 1854. “Bone pickers, rag pickers, raw material pickers, dredgers, mud scavengers, sewer hunters,” Johnson lists. Perhaps the great city of the world, at that time: epicenter of international tradethanks to all its colonies, expanding economic capital. And, therefore, the great claim for all those who seek fortune and rise in their social status.
London grows every day, but the most essential public services to meet such a demographic increase do not do so at the same speed, not even remotely . As usually happens in this type of situation, society polarizes, building two cities to a large extent, which feed off each other even though they are located at opposite poles: on the one hand, the London of big finance, wealth and the upper bourgeoisie, and on the other, the “community of at least one hundred thousand people” that subsists thanks to everything that is discarded by the first, through what we could call primary (or wild) recycling.
Unbridled and uncontrolled growth, the absence of public services and minimal sanitation and a very high population density were the open doors that cholera found in the summer of 1854, to sneak into London’s Soho without difficulty. Although the city has suffered from several pandemics before, it has never been hit by one with such speed and death rate . “London was about to witness an even more terrifying battle between humans and microbes. Its impact became the deadliest in the city’s history,” writes Johnson.
In less than a day, many families watched helplessly as their members perished. It is estimated that 500 people died in the first 24 hours, almost 800 a week later. Two men, from very different positions initially, John Snow and Henry Whitehead , face the disease almost alone, apart from the prevailing theories at the time.
From these elements, the author uses to write The Phantom Map, a work that is based on different genres, the essay, the novel or the biography, to reconstruct a fact that, over time, has taken on special meaning. . Not only in the current circumstances, but also in the past, in all pandemicsthat have taken place and that, after this case, have been treated from a single perspective: the scientific one. Henry Whitehead is a priest of the Church of England who has an excellent relationship with many families in Soho, where the parish of St. Luke is located, for which he is responsible. John Snow is an anesthesiologist, with extensive training and a great reputation, even to the point of attending to Queen Victoria in one of her births. In 1848 he began to be interested in cholera and it did not take him long to acquire remarkable knowledge about its origin, spread and treatment.
Initially, Whitehead relies on traditional theses and does not hesitate to attribute the origin of the epidemic to the smell, or better stench ., unbearable and constant, which affects the entire area, which amplified the increase in temperature (the epidemic happened in August). However, observant as he is, he notices that the disease spreads more quickly on the ground floors and that larger families – who live on the upper floors – do not suffer from the disease with such intensity. Snow arrives at the same point as Whitehead, but using maps – drawn from contagions – that begin and end in the same place: the Broad Street water fountain. The meeting of Whitehead and Snow establishes an alliance, not at all premeditated, casual in this historic case, between demography and epidemiology, which have become, since then, the fundamental elements to which science turns to tackle any epidemic.
The ghost map also shows us the birth of large cities, the attraction that cities have always exerted. The rural exodus to the urban world is very present in the work. Johnson reiterates, throughout the text, and especially in its final pages, the importance of demographic strategies., as a phenomenon that has to be studied and managed, since the absence of corrective actions, as happened in London in 1854, can bring us terrible consequences. Johnson insists on the idea that cities will suffer the most from pandemics, but at the same time, they will be the ones that offer the most appropriate responses to avoid them in the future.
Undoubtedly, it is an exciting story that Steven Johnson has been able to narrate with great success, by managing to balance the documentary rigor, the scientific explanation and the story, frequently with the makings and atmosphere of a Dickensian story . A reading that goes beyond the current, although at this time it can explain a good part of what is happening to us.

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