Neoliberal John Snow

“You do poo”

Only a few satirists manage to capture aspects of social reality in an enlightening and humorous way. One of them could be Neoliberal John Snow’s anonymous Twitter account. About parallels between the cholera epidemic in England in the 19th century and COVID-19, the canonisation and demonisation of scientists and a backward trend in the public health discourse that particularly harms disadvantaged groups. A conversation with the Neoliberal John Snow and the scientist Franziska Kohlt.

You are reading the English version of this article. The German version has been published here.

* Titelbild: Erstellt mit Einzelne Abbildungen via und Wikipedia. Bearbeitung / Montage: Gunnar Hamann,

Born in York in 1813, British physician John Snow is considered one of the pioneers in the fight against deadly infectious diseases. When a deadly cholera epidemic broke out in London in 1854, he was the first to discover the cause. Drinking water contaminated with faeces. In 1858, just a few years after his discovery, which was not widely recognized during his lifetime, John Snow died. In the Victorian era, the idea was widespread that infectious diseases were caused by bad smells, so-called miasms.

John Snow’s story also shows that public health is a field of research that is primarily shaped by altruistic personalities. At least that’s how satirical Twitter user John Snow sees it. The account’s satire is based on the question: What if John Snow was alive today but adapted to the neoliberal zeitgeist?

The figure of the “Neoliberal John Snow” fully embodies the individualist, anti-collectivist, pro-business and pro-deregulation policies that have spawned the idiotic response to COVID-19 since early 2022’, the online satirist explains.

Pandemic parallels

John Snow as a hero?

Franziska Kohlt is a researcher in the history of science and science communication at the University of York in the UK. The birthplace of John Snow. She already dealt with Snow in her doctoral thesis. During the Coronavirus pandemic, Snow became topical again for her.

Kohlt notes that the professionalisation of science in England at that time cannot be compared with today: ‘Around 1850 there was only one university in England that awarded scientific degrees. Science wasn’t as institutionalized as it is now. For example, not every politician had scientific advisors. Commissions to collect scientific expertise for the government were just beginning to be established’.

Contemporaries accused Snow of ‘unscientific thinking’ and even the journal The Lancet admitted very late that one of their published comments on John Snow had been ‘perhaps somewhat overly negative in tone’. An understatement. Lancet co-founder Thomas Wakely wrote of John Snow at the time: ‘The fact is that the well whence Dr. Snow draws all sanitary truth is the main sewer. His specus, or den, is a drain’.

Stilisierter Ausschnitt aus der Karte, die John Snow 1854 während des Ausbruchs der Cholera in London anfertigte. Dunkle Flecken zeigen Gebäude, in denen Cholera auftrat. Snow stellte fest, dass diese Ausbrüche alle im Umkreis einer öffentlichen Wasserpumpe stattfanden (rot umkreist). Er schlussfolgerte korrekt, dass Verunreinigungen durch Fäkalien für die Epidemie verantwortlich waren. Quelle: Wikipedia / Bearbeitung: Gunnar Hamann,
Stylized detail from the map made by John Snow during the cholera outbreak in London in 1854. Dark patches show buildings where cholera was present. Snow found that infections all occurred in the vicinity of a public water pump (circled in red). He correctly concluded that faecal contamination was responsible for the epidemic. Image: Wikipedia / Edited by Gunnar Hamann,

While definitiely seeing the appeal and value of satiritcal framings, Franziska Kohlt also believes the stylization of John Snow as a hero can be problematic, ‘especially in the COVID-19 pandemic’. According to Kohlt, this tendency was evident, for example, in the choice of name for the John Snow Memorandum. ‘The amusing thing is that he was stylized as a hero who was right. That was not the case then, because it was not recognized during his lifetime. To my knowledge, he wasn’t called a hero until the 1930s. You have to take a nuanced look at it’.

Kohlt criticizes that this overstylisation of individual experts provides fodder for populism. ‘Whether you do it consciously or unconsciously. This heroic stylization can have really good intentions, but it can also be problematic’.

Whether Anthony Fauci or the German virologist Christian Drosten. Phenomenologically, the transfiguration of public figures is nothing new. On the other hand, this also includes the demonization of scientists. A scholarly examination of this iconography was carried out by Butler et al. in the article ‘PandemIcons?’.

The article points out, among other things, the sometimes diametrically different influence of private and public media in the United States and Germany on the public perception of both scientists and how this impression was reproduced and even desired. It is said that Drosten and other scientists are reluctant celebrities who have been called on by the logic of ‘neoliberal capitalism under the guise of the media-political apparatus’ to engage in resistance and public dissent.

Back then, during the cholera epidemic, many scientists also cynically and publicly dealt with it in the new newspapers. Of course, if you want to criticize someone scientifically, you don’t do it that way. Then you ask: “Hey, can I see your data?”’.

The common thread and the primacy of economic usability
Mensch oder Wirtschaft? Was prinzipiell kein Widerspruch ist, wurde im Verlauf der Pandemie in einigen Staaten als solcher aufgebaut. Wirtschaftliche Interessen werden weiterhin dem Gesundheitsschutz untergeordnet, so macht es den Anschein und befeuert zugleich weitere künstliche Paradoxien der Pandemie, die erst durch die Bevorteilung wirtschaftlicher Interessen entstehen konnten. So werden Forderungen nach einer Abschaffung von Schutzmaßnahmen an deutschen Schulen etwa auch damit begründet, dass diese Einschränkungen für Erwachsene nicht gelten. Abbildung: Gunnar Hamann, / erstellt mit
People or economy? What is not a contradiction in principle was built up as such in some countries during the course of the pandemic. Economic interests continue to be subordinate to health protection, it seems, and at the same time fuels further artificial paradoxes of the pandemic, which could only arise by favouring economic interests. For example, calls for the abolition of protective measures in German schools are also justified by the fact that these restrictions do not apply to adults. Image: Gunnar Hamann, / Created with

In the 19th century, a lot depended on the benevolence of industry, says Kohlt. Much more educational work needs to be done, she adds, to make it clear to more people that ‘the Victorian age was not only the age of great explorers, but the age of great looters and exploiters. If you read through what these people had to say about race, you’ll see why they believed – and acted like – and why “Workers are replaceable”’.

While there are such parallels, Kohlt also finds it important to distinguish between contemporary neoliberalism and Victorian capitalism. There is a kind of ‘common thread’, she says, that is buried between narratives that the Neoliberal John Snow also plays with. According to Kohlt, one of these can be described as victim blaming.

For example: “You just have to pull yourself together and it’s only certain people who get this disease.” At that time the disease was blamed on workers because they were alcoholics, unclean, immoral or not good Christians, they’re somehow lacking in something’. And these narratives could also be observed during Covid, where teachers were faulted for a lack of bravery. Expressing concerns about protection in the workplace. Similar tendencies can also be observed in Great Britain during the current energy crisis, she says: ‘Two examples come to my mind. “Just put on a sweater. Don’t heat your food in the microwave”’ – focusing on personal behaviours rather than systemic problems is a typical behaviour in both Victorian capitalist and modern neoliberal settings.

Kohlt is also interested in the question of which public metaphors and narratives are helpful in dealing with the pandemic. ‘During cholera, very helpful metaphors for framing the disease were used. For example: the flood narrative. The pathogen had been compared to a flood which emphasised the need to stay away and distance, in the sense of “social distancing”. That was a very appropriate narrative and it was used before it was known that cholera was transmitted by sewage.**

In modern Great Britain, researchers have agreed it was a mistake to talk about a ‘war’ against the virus. ‘The virus is a virus. It has no connection whatsoever to religious moral concepts of “good”, “evil”, or “bravery”“ – it simply exists’. Victim blaming narratives were ultimately fed by such metaphors, she adds.

First, according to Kohlt, it is important to expose these narratives for what they are. ‘You are not the problem’ should be the public message, according to the researcher. Secondly, looking back at history is important in order to immunize oneself against such messages. ‘Look, they pulled that off as early as the 19th century and it was already nonsense back then’, Kohlt paraphrases this historical reflection.

Even the Neoliberal John Snow is aware that there are limits to his comparison. ‘COVID-19 and cholera are caused by very different pathogens. Interventions to stop transmission of COVID-19 differ greatly from those used to prevent cholera, as do treatments for those affected’.

One of the parallels Neoliberal John Snow draws with the Coronavirus pandemic is that cholera is largely non-existent in modern Britain due to expensive infrastructure projects ‘such as sewerage and water treatment plants, as well as public measures related to food preparation and hand washing’. In the past, society had agreed that such measures were helpful in preventing cholera.

The satirist goes on to say that ‘COVID-19 also remains poorly controlled, in part due to a lack of infrastructure projects such as clean air and a lack of compliance with necessary hygiene that limits the transmission of a virus through airborne transmission’.

Kohlt appreciates Snow’s satirical account and sees it as a cynical comment on Anglo-American pandemic policy: ‘To present the whole thing in such an exaggerated way as “Neoliberal John Snow” in today’s world fits quite well from my point of view, because there are many parallels in how certain institutions are making profits. Even in the first COVID-19 wave, an above-average number of poorer people and people of colour were affected. The people who have profited from it are mostly from the conservative party. To date, there has not really been any investigation into what was going on.

Certain ideologies about the working class and propaganda played a role even in the Victorian England’. Kohlt mentions that Sanitary and Christian Socialist campaigners, such as Charles Kingsley, suggested that companies should implement better protective measures during the cholera epidemic. ‘Kingsley realized that the whole thing was only taken seriously when the richer classes were also affected’. Kingsley, like John Snow, was not taken seriously on this point of time either.

Kohlt is, however, also keen to highlight that Kingsley’s views diverged rather starkly when it came to workers who were not white and not English.

Great Barrington Disinformation

Der britische Premierminister Boris Johnson und ehemalige Präsident der Vereinigten Staaten – Donald Trump – schütteln die Hände bei einem Treffen der Generalversammlung der Vereinten Nationen im Jahr 2017. Trumps Coronapolitik war maßgeblich von Personen aus dem Umfeld der Great Barrington Declaration beeinflusst worden. Auch bei Johnson gibt es Anzeichen für einen solche Einflussnahme. Bild: Weißes Haus, Public Domain.
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Donald Trump, the previous President of the United States of America. Both shake hands at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. Trump's corona policy was significantly influenced by people associated with the Great Barrington Declaration. There are also signs of such influence in the case of Boris Johnson. Image: White House, public domain.

Franziska Kohlt certifies that COVID-19 is heavily mixed up with other topics in Great Britain, including Brexit. There are also many prejudices, she says. From her work with Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities, she reports that the vast majority within religious faith communities are interested in scientific topics.

One must also carefully distinguish between ‘reasonable caution and doubt and active disparagement of science’. She mentions this because in Britain ’there has been a lot of focus on the non-white communities. It was said that they were afraid of the vaccination. All sorts of racism has boiled over there. There were many different reasons why people were worried and they are by no means anti-scientific’.

For the Neoliberal John Snow, the problem lies in parts of the power positions that influence public health policy. In the United States, these are ‘not people driven by a desire to do the right thing to improve people’s health and lives, but people who want to improve the livelihoods of the rich by getting the economy back on track to pre-pandemic levels’.

I switched from climate communication to communication on COVID-19 and you can draw a surprising number of parallels’, says Kohlt. This connection between the two topics is probably most impressively evident in what is known as the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD).

Contrary to the majority of scientific reservations, the declaration aims to achieve herd immunity by infecting the population. In order to protect risk groups, one speaks of ‘targeted protection’, but to date there has been no explanation as to how this can be guaranteed in the case of high incidences.

The US-based libertarian think tank American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) was significantly involved in the creation of the declaration in autumn 2020. AIER has also previously been involved in spreading narratives against the causes and effects of climate change, according to Nafeez Ahmed for the Byline Times.

Among others, Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya (from left to right) signed and authored the Great Barrington Declaration. The pictured meeting took place with the support of AIER. Image: Website / Great Barrington Declaration.

In the meantime, the GBD and most of its leading supporters have founded the Brownstone Institute. Brownstone describes itself as the ‘spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration’. The initiative’s website contains disinformation about the pandemic, including conspiracy narratives that now go well beyond COVID-19.

Neoliberal John Snow is also no stranger to disinformation groups. On Twitter, he regularly uses the hashtag #FecalUrgencyOfNormal. An allusion, as he explains, to the US initiative Urgency of Normal. In The New Republic, journalist Melody Schreiber criticizes the group, which is, according to her, working with a distorted selection of studies to abolish protective measures against COVID-19 in schools.

Better than screaming into the void

Viele Menschen sind während der Pandemie an ihre Belastungsgrenzen gestoßen. Vielleicht sind sie auch die vergessenen Held:innen von Corona. Bild: Erstellt mit / Bearbeitung: Gunnar Hamann,
Many people have experienced their personal limits during the pandemic. Maybe they are the forgotten heroes, who deserve more praise. Image: Created with / Editing: Gunnar Hamann,

I ask Franziska Kohlt whether she can name a John Snow alive today. ‘I think it’s really interesting to look at John Snow historically, where he came from and what his views were outside of the cholera epidemic. I find it interesting to look at the science in the past to open your eyes a little to who, outside of the limelight, contributed to our understanding of the corona or climate crisis that may not have been so recognised. This heroic transfiguration of John Snow is incredibly complicated. To draw parallels? I think you might fall into this trap yourself’.

Neoliberal John Snow has a personal favourite. Mona Hanna-Attisha. A pediatrician with public health training. In the US community of Flint, Michigan, she found elevated levels of lead in the blood of children. Hanna-Attisha was also initially ridiculed in public. A spokesman for the state of Michigan told her, that her work was ‘unfortunate’ at a time ‘near hysteria’. In contrast to Snow, the pediatrician was fortunately rehabilitated while she was still alive.

Public health interventions go hand-in-hand with collectivist policies, which have time and again led to a betterment of society, either through communities coming together to halt viral transmission through mass vaccinations, entire cities volunteering their time to contribute to observational research, or a focus on halting the use of contaminated drinking water’, according to Neoliberal John Snow.

Satire cannot be the only medium, but paired with good research and science communication, it is very important’, says Franziska Kohlt with a nod to the satirist. For the satirical John Snow, the account also appears to be an outlet for not participating in the individualistic neoliberal screaming concert that the pandemic has spawned.

I suppose in a way, this satirical Twitter account exists because it’s better than screaming into the void’, he concludes, continuing to satirically toss ‘shit’ on Twitter. Probably in the hope that at some point in the public discourse all participants will agree to go to the potty properly and wash their hands afterwards. 

The common thread is there. Buried under a pile of shit.

* Cover photo: Created with Individual images via and Wikipedia. Editing and montage: Gunnar Hamann,

** Correction from October 4th: In the previous version, the reference to a „virus“ in connection with cholera was misleading. Cholera is, of course, a bacterium.

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