In some ways, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser on Covid to President Biden and a prominent public health figure since the 1980s, served in a role similar to the one Dr. Wu played in China, Dr. Huang said. But, his message perhaps didn’t always get through because Americans are more polarized in their political identities and beliefs.

Dr. Legleiter added that public health messaging only penetrates if the public identifies with or trusts that figure of authority.

“An individual person is a stand-in for a broader set of institutions or systems that they’re speaking on the behalf of,” Dr. Legleiter said. Those who lean conservative, for instance, may put Dr. Fauci and other scientists in the category of “the elites.” As such, they’re more likely to flout public health policies that such authority figures promote, and comply with proclamations from individuals they identify with the most.

Others say that public health is intrinsically tied to the legitimacy of the state promoting it. At the turn of the 20th century, China was in distress, Dr. Hanson said. Dr. Wu helped bring China out of a tumultuous period, and the enforcement of public health measures gave the country more legitimacy.

Similarly, because the current pandemic has laid bare shortcomings in the public health systems in the United States, Britain and other Western countries, some experts believe it can be a catalyst for change.

“Since the mid-19th century, the West has generally seen its ability to control infectious disease as a marker of their civilizational superiority over much of the rest of the world,” Dr. White said. While China was seen as the sick man of the world then, some commentators in China now attempt to brand the United States with that label.

Ruth Rogaski, a medical historian at Vanderbilt University who specializes in studying the Qing dynasty and modern China, believes that the coronavirus crisis similarly offers an opportunity for reflection, which can be very motivating.

“Epidemics can serve as inflection points,” Dr. Rogaski said. “Opportunities to rethink, retool and even revolutionize approaches to health.”

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