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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Rethinking Disease in Asia after COVID-19
3: Barefoot Doctor's Magic Bullet: Mass Production of Antibiotics and China's Healthcare System in the Global Cold War
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Princeton University, United States
Disease control during an epidemic such as COVID-19 is often shaped by the availability of medical resources and involves making decisions on what to use and the ad hoc management of production and distribution. This paper proposes to understand disease control efforts in China from a material perspective, focusing on drugs. Specifically, this paper traces the global spread of antibiotics in China in the Global Cold War and examines the profound impact of integrating this drug to China’s healthcare system, while highlighting a localized and historicized understanding of “standard” biomedical drugs. After WWII, while large-scale production of antibiotics, the so-called “magic bullets,” sprung up in the U.S., Europe and Japan, China continued relying on importation well into the 1950s. Mass production of antibiotics became an urgent need under the pressure of Korean War and U.S. embargo. This paper first argues that antibiotic production in China is more than a story of the local adaptation of technology, rather, it saw the state’s management of scientific expertise and a particular form of scientific industrialization in the early PRC. This paper further suggests that the widely renowned rural medical reform in China has been sustained in multiple ways by the mass production of antibiotics, which in turn fuelled the prosperity of antibiotic industry during the Cultural Revolution. The knowledge of antibiotics created and spread in the Mao era shaped the prescribing habit of doctors and the population’s understanding of drugs and diseases, both of which have a lasting impact until today.