Plagues Return

Iron lungs in gym Courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center

There was a time when the United States, flush with cash and robust with plentiful food and roads and cars and televisions, became paralyzed with fear of a contagion. Pools and schools were closed. Quarantines were imposed, fear was everywhere, businesses failed, tempers were frayed. Of course, I’m referring to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Poliomyelitis – Polio – stalked the land, crippling tens of thousands, killing thousands, ruining lives. There have been no cases of Polio in the USA in the past 40 years, but I could as easily have been referring to HIV-AIDS, which arose in the 1980s, and has killed 32 million people since.

The thesis of this site is that the new, post-COVID normal is to be different. That we will have to adapt, that we will have to change some key parts of our behaviors, our social constructs, our industries and economies. And that we benefit by thinking of the strange new world.

Equally likely is that the years before COVID were the unusual ones, the strange ones.  That plague-free times were abnormal, and that plagues, ghastly waves of pandemic diseases have time and time again raged, running unstopped and little hindered through vast populations.

We were never supposed to forget. How did we as society forget? There are plenty of educated adults around for whom COVID was their FOURTH widespread health epidemic – pandemic. Polio, HIV-AIDS, SARS and COVID. Or even their fifth or even sixth, if you add H1N1 flu, or Ebola. Nonetheless, collectively, we forgot.

Ebola Virus, CDC

Plagues, pandemics, pestilences, contagions have been a near-constant in the rise of humanity. As fast as our improving technologies win more battles, new diseases rise against us. Vaccines won the war against Polio, and may yet push adequately back against COVID: vaccines for coronaviruses are really challenging, but there are over 80 programs underway to create one for COVID / SARS-COV2. Strict quarantines pushed back on SARS and Ebola (which now has a decent vaccine). But we as humanity and our societies have not built strong enough systemic safeguards against future challenges.

The 1918 – 1920 ‘flu pandemic infected as much as one third of all humanity alive at the time, and killed tens of millions. Cholera killed over a million Russians in the mid-19th century, and killed tens of thousands in each of many countries for years around then. 

Earlier pandemics were even more fatal. Bubonic plague, black death, killed as much as half of Europe’s population in the decades (in the 14th century) when it ravaged Europe – the word quarantine dates to this time – from the Venetian-dialect word for 40 days (of isolation). Large outbreaks were noted as early as the 6th century, but major outbreaks occurred in the 17th and 19th centuries.

And while genocide did its part in enabling Europeans to take over the Americas (a ghastly truth), imported diseases killed more. As many as 20 million native Americans were killed by infections brought over the Atlantic by Western colonizers and invaders – particularly Smallpox – eradicating as much as 90% of the indigenous population. Parts of the eastern seaboard of what is now the USA were almost completely emptied by new diseases. A later outbreak of smallpox in southern Africa, again brought in by Europeans, erased large parts of the native Khoisan peoples.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Some diseases never went away, and still killed in vast numbers. Tuberculosis was responsible for about one half of deaths for adults (ages 15 to 35) in Europe’s major cities in the late 19th century. Other contagious diseases, diphtheria, cholera and more, were always there, killing by the thousands. Influenza and the common cold evolve and persist and kill.

No wonder that the Bible and Shakespeare and many other writings (notably Camus, Defoe, and Garcia Marquez) throughout history, have harped on plagues, pestilences. Invisible diseases with new, strange, and poorly-understood vectors and contagion.

The thesis of Strange New Normal, then, is not only that COVID alone will change society, or that we will change society specifically to deal with COVID. It’s also that we have a moment, now, to build societies that are more resilient against, and better prepared for major disruptions, black swans. Better prepared for the next pandemics. For history tells us: they’re coming, they’ve come before, they’ve never stopped coming.

For one thing COVID has shown is: we were (mostly) unprepared. Our systems were taut, with little room for slack, few inefficiencies. All gone was the padding, the fat that enables resilience. We were, for the most part, uneducated on pandemics. We’d forgotten.

Left: Image of “Doctor Beak”, a plague doctor, Rome, 1656.
Right: Selfie of the author of this piece, heading out to buy groceries, California, April 2020.

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