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HISTORY IS TRYING TO TEACH US

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

April 16, 2020


As time passes I just keep feeling like we are trying to find answers and remedies before we’re anywhere close to sure what we’re fighting. We’re like people interrupting a discussion with “I know what you’re about to say, and you’re wrong!” Everyone has a relative like this, or has sat next to someone like this at a dinner party. Nothing more annoying, right?


In this case, we’d be smart to look to history before making predictions. Some lessons are already very evident. Chief among them: whatever diseases humans have been able to eradicate in the past, or at least cope with, crumbled before the god of Science, and not … you know, virtuousness. Or wanting so bad to make it go away. Or ritual sacrifice, curses, whatever desperate things people have tried. It's always science.


Let’s take the Black Death. Also a pandemic, this plague is believed to have hit Europe in 1347. Within four years it had killed about 200 million people. Even by COVID-19 standards, that’s staggering.


But unlike us, people then were really swinging blind. The idea of person-to-person contagion was still new and many were not convinced by evidence (ha! OK, so some things don’t change that much). Desperation led to experimentation, and eventually Venetian officials ordered all sailors coming from overseas to stay aboard their ships. They started with a 30-day isolation period (“trentino”) then extended it 10 days longer (“quarantino” - 40 days). If you guessed that’s where our word quarantine comes from, you're right!


So even way back then, when people thought bathing could cure kidney stones, and animals were sometimes convicted in criminal court for things like stealing part of the harvest, we knew isolation helped. We knew almost nothing about why, just that it did. So even if God’s will was involved, well, so was human contact, apparently.


Lesson #1: Take Right Action Even if Knowledge is Incomplete.





















Now we come to Cholera, a truly horrific intestinal disease that’s capable of killing a person within hours. Cholera is still responsible for an estimated 143,000 deaths worldwide every year. But people continue to die of cholera not because we don’t know what causes it (yes, poor sewage and contaminated drinking water! Right again!) but because some societies still aren’t able to solve those problems. So from this we learn that action and, yes, money are necessary to resolve the problem.


Lesson #2: Spend What it Takes to Fix it.


And here we are at Smallpox, or for that matter Polio. At one time people were terrified of both, and for excellent reasons. Smallpox is like the mother of all contagious diseases, having wiped out almost 100% of certain populations in its heyday.


Polio was deadly too, though not that deadly. But it’s recent enough that some of our elders still remember it from their childhoods in the 1940’s. One of mine, for instance, spent a whole childhood of her summer not allowed to leave her front porch, where she became a legendary jacks player who kicked all asses when school resumed in the fall (and never contracted polio. See Lesson #1, above). We know that one of our coolest Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, was partially paralyzed by polio, and guess what, it also afflicted someone all of us know … Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell!


You’d think someone who survived a brutal contagious disease during a Depression would be inclined to help people now, wouldn't you? Instead of pushing the majority of U.S. relief funding to corporations, wouldn’t you? Especially when regular Americans, like the elder Mrs. McConnell, devoted their lives to helping their children recover and walk again … though Mitch says now he can’t remember how his mom was able to do that, financially.


This would be a good time to mention that as of today, April 16, government aid to small businesses and individuals has officially dried up. This is heartbreaking but not surprising to most Americans, who can see that partisan divisions in government are resulting in aid that is both too scant and too slow for the current crisis.


The New York Times reported yesterday, “Economists and business lobbyists warned when the bill was being debated that the money was nowhere close to the $1 trillion or more that companies would need” and “[The] distribution does not match the spread of damage from the crisis.”


So maybe the U.S. in 2020 is not just a little shaky on #1, but also on #2.


Let’s see if we can do better with this: what do smallpox and polio have in common? If you guessed “vaccines,” you’re right! Both are on the list of diseases that have been almost or completely eradicated by those magical scientific potions known as “vaccines.” Which leads us to Lesson #3: Hurry Up & Develop a Vaccine, for God’s Sake.



And this, I’m pleased to report, ALL OF US are in agreement with, even in these contentious United States! Yes, Trump, too. In fact, I’m delighted to report that the whole world is cooperating like mad on the development of a vaccine. Although testing it is something that can’t be rushed, many countries including ours are devoting passionate effort to vaccine research. Yes, we’re still a year-to-18 months away from actually being able to GET a vaccine injected into our arms! But surely it does everyone’s spirits good to know that we are rock stars when it comes to #3.


So let’s review.


#1: take the right action even before we have all the answers, which in this case is — ding, ding, ding! — quarantino! Like the Italian sailors!


And #2, spend whatever it costs to combat or contain the problem until it is fixed. Because we know, even now, that this pandemic is going to cost us big. But spending now, before more people die, will mean we can save lives while waiting for …. #3, the cure!





I’m no historian, but it seems to be that the better we are at #1 and #2, the better shape we’ll be in when we get to #3.


The White House is saying now that as many as 200,000 Americans may die of this virus. Since we don't actually know how many people are infected, medical experts say the total is likely to be higher. Much higher.


Globally we're probably talking millions, and we have to acknowledge our role as contributors. Because until we get our own situation under control, which we're far from doing, we pose a threat to every other country on earth.


If COVID-19 ends up killing millions, it will rank as one of the world’s deadliest plagues. Yes, the Black Death (1347-1352) claimed 75-200 million, and the 1918 flu 50 million. But come on, we’re living in the golden age of science and technology! We have tools at our disposal that our ancestors could only dream of. We have diagnostic testing capabilities, computerized projections and medical know-how that would have seemed like magic to them. And our MONEY. The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world – in fact, the wealthiest nation that the world has ever seen.


Not to mention, we’ve as a species have fought this battle before. We can benefit from recorded history, which previous civilizations couldn’t.


Nowadays, we can research all that came before us with excruciating precision and detail. Our vast historical, medical knowledge enables us to be eerily accurate when we predict the future.


So why is this enemy vanquishing us, instead of the other way around?


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