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World War II’s Warsaw Ghetto Holds Lifesaving Lessons for COVID-19

Public health interventions don’t just work during your run-of-the-mill pandemic. They are effective even when people are trying to kill you by using a disease outbreak as a genocidal weapon of mass destruction.

A paper published on Friday in Science Advances reports on a sophisticated mathematical analysis that shows how personal hygiene, quarantines, social distancing and a grass-roots public education campaign appeared to extinguish a raging typhus epidemic in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. The incident stands out because these well-recognized health-preserving measures were promulgated successfully, even as the Nazis attempted to use starvation and typhus to wipe out 450,000 people packed into an area the size of New York City’s Central Park—five to 10 times the density of any city in today’s world.

The researchers say some of the lessons from typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto may carry over to COVID-19. “At a basic level, we learn how communities can use simple public health measures designed to beat infectious diseases,” says Lewi Stone, the study’s lead author. “Education, hygiene, motivation and cooperation are incredibly important in trying to beat the pandemic.”

Stone is a mathematical biologist at RMIT University in Australia and Tel Aviv University. And he is part of a community of researchers who simulate epidemiological events using sophisticated mathematical models to study modern outbreaks the plague, influenza and early-childhood diseases. These specialists have now trained an obsessive focus on COVID-19.

Previous work by Stone also explored historical themes. He used data based on railway records, for example, to examine the pace at which the Nazis transported and killed almost the entire Polish Jewish population.

Stone began this latest project three years ago, after he came upon a study that mentioned the World War II–era impact of the lice-borne bacterial illness typhus—a disease that took on a leading role during the Holocaust. The Science Advances paper explains that “the German discourse on hygiene was very much influenced by the anti-Semitic idea of Jews being notorious bearers of diseases. In the Nazis’ ideology, this evolved into Jews being the actual disease, so epidemics were to be naturally expected and dealt with, which in the end meant annihilating the Jews.”

When Stone started exploring the data that he found about typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto, he discovered that underreported official case and death statistics from the area diverged widely from epi

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