COVID-19 introduced most Americans to a pandemic. Other than historians or scientists, many people believed that pandemics were either a thing of the past or something that only affected underdeveloped nations.
The last pandemic that fully affected Americans was the 1957 “Asian flu,” which began in Hong Kong. Many people in their mid-70s or older remember it; I do. For younger people, pandemics are ancient history, but because pandemics are part of recurring history, we must learn from the past.
Pandemics have been recorded since at least 430 B.C. in Athens and increased in frequency in recent centuries as exploration and wars brought people from far-off places in contact with one another where they could share their illnesses. In 1889, a Russian flu, which began in Siberia, infected all Europe and eventually came to our country, although Americans were sure the ocean would protect us.
This February in this newspaper, Dr. David J. Dalrymple reviewed Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague.” Set in a Mediterranean port city in Algeria in the 1940s when a hypothetical bubonic plague breaks out, this book reminds the reader that many of the issues affecting people during COVID-19 are part of both history and literature.
“The Plague” illustrates that most people initially react to a new mysterious serious illness with denial. The sickness is typically rationalized as only affecting selected people or areas. Sometimes a religious explanation is offered. As cases increase and deaths pile up, people want to believe it is only “not our kind of people” who will become sick. In the novel as well as real life, governmental leaders are called upon to prevent panic and economic crises. Minimization of the illness and short-term inconvenience are hyped until the devastation becomes obvious. As the situation worsens, fear dominates and authorities place restrictions on social and economic life. No one is happy.
When anxiety about health, supplies and finances multiply, sources of blame and scapegoating increase. In COVID-19’s case, China, where the virus originated, is blamed. This has morphed into irrational violence toward Asian Americans, some whom have never stepped foot in China. In the 14th century, the bubonic plague irrationally was blamed on European Jewish communities, although the pandemic began in Asia and entered Europe via Sicily.
During a pandemic, people become desperate for treatment. Sometimes, scientists find an explanation for the illness, as in 19th century England during a cholera epidemic, which was caused by sewer-contaminated drinking water. In the 21st century, science has provided an amazing antidote to COVID-19, so that after 3 million deaths worldwide and almost 600,000 in the U.S., effective vaccines are saving millions of lives.
Today, as in the past, varied reactions and conflicts occur in response to recommended actions and vaccines. Mask disputes today mirror those of the 1918-19 flu pandemic. “Vaccine passports” are controversial now and in the past.
Our present pandemic will end; it will be sooner if more people are vaccinated. A “Pandemics 101” message is we must learn from the past, understand that COVID-19 will not be the world’s last pandemic and prepare for the future.