The Coronavirus pandemic has had America in its grip for weeks. As some Americans isolate themselves from the virus and others lament the restrictions, one obvious point is that our collective national memory has lost sight of the fact we, as a nation, have been here before. Even if we don’t remember it, the United States and its various parts have suffered through many epidemics and pandemics of infectious diseases before. In fact, especially before the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics, pandemics and epidemics could almost be considered a way of life, occurring every few years.
In our own time, we have seen the HIV/AIDS pandemic but that differed from COVID-19 in two important ways. At its peak, HIV was much more lethal than Coronavirus, but it was also much less contagious and took longer to kill. Although AIDS killed millions around the world over several decades, it was easy to avoid becoming infected. You couldn’t catch AIDS from a cough or a sneeze.
We have seen other pandemics as well. Influenza pandemics went around the world in 2009, 1968, 1956, and 1918. Most of these pandemics killed relatively few people but the 1918 Spanish flu was responsible for an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide, including 675,000 Americans.
Some of you may have heard older friends and relatives talk about the Spanish flu pandemic. My grandmother was a young girl at the time and told my mom about her memories of the pandemic. My grandmother’s family took in another young girl who lost both her parents to the 1918 flu. Unlike most strains of the flu, which primarily kill the old and young, the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu pandemic killed many healthy young adults.
The fight against the Spanish flu, a pandemic that had its origins in the US, used many of the same strategies as the fight against COVID-19. Although the lead in containing the Spanish flu was taken by city and local authorities rather than state and federal officials, the cities that fared best reacted quickly by closing schools, churches, theaters and banning public gatherings. Several studies reported in National Geographic found that cities that were early adopters of that era’s social distancing strategies had death rates 50 percent lower than those who did so later or not at all. The experience in 1918 also showed that lifting restrictions too early could cause a second wave outbreak. Obviously, these restrictions were dropped after the crisis had passed.
Going back even further, there was yet another flu pandemic in 1889 that killed a million people worldwide. There were also wave pandemics of cholera in the mid-1800s and 1910 with similar death tolls.
Beyond the pandemics, there were also localized epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, and scarlet fever. If you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you may remember a reference to smallpox in which Huck keeps two slave-hunters away from his raft by convincing them that his family has the infectious disease. Other Western novels contain references to white men giving blankets contaminated with smallpox to the Indians. The plot device has its roots in a real incident in 1763 in which the British attempted to induce a smallpox epidemic on Indians laying siege to Ft. Pitt in Pennsylvania. This early attempt at biological warfare is the only known such effort and apparently failed, but Europeans did accidentally wipe out 70 percent of the Native American population when they first brought smallpox to the New World in the 1600s.
Since our forebears were more accustomed to dealing with epidemics and pandemics than we are, we must now relearn the old lessons. Smallpox, yellow fever, scarlet fever, and cholera are no longer diseases that concern us. An obvious question is why we don’t still suffer through epidemics of these diseases the way we do the flu.
The answer is vaccines and antibiotics. In 1757, Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine in history to fight smallpox. Yellow fever has been almost eradicated through a combination of vaccines and mosquito control. Scarlet fever and cholera are treated with antibiotics. While there is also a flu vaccine, the flu virus mutates so rapidly that a new vaccine must be created for each year’s prevalent strain.
The second tactic that our great-grandparents used to fight pandemics was isolation. Quarantines have been around for hundreds of years. The origin of the word “quarantine” dates back to the 1300s when the bubonic plague, more famously known as the “Black Death” was ravaging Europe.
Science Friday tells the story of how the death of about one-third of Europe’s population from the Back Death inspired the port of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) to impose a trentino, a 30-day isolation period, on ships arriving from plague-stricken ports. When the 30-day period was increased to 40 days, the quarantino gave birth to the English word, “quarantine.”
Contrary to a popular meme going around, quarantines are not an isolation of the sick. By definition, they are isolation of people who are infected or who have been exposed to infectious diseases. As with COVID-19, victims of pandemics past could spread the disease to others long before they showed symptoms and became visibly sick.
The strategy of isolating the infected goes back far beyond the bubonic plague. For example, the Levitical laws of the Bible, written down thousands of years before Christ, instructed the ancient Israelites to cast out people with certain diseases for specified periods until they were once again clean. In the Christian Post, Scott Brown notes that Jews in Europe who practiced the Biblical guidelines suffered lower death rates than the gentile Christians who did not.
A major challenge of our time is that both tactics used against pandemics are under assault. COVID-19 will eventually be defeated with a vaccine. However, the anti-vaccination movement in the US has gained steam in recent years. It is an open question whether anti-vaxxers will accept a Coronavirus vaccine or take their chances with the virus, especially since many deny that COVID-19 is as serious as medical experts claim and some even deny that it is a pandemic.
Similarly, many Americans are resisting the social distancing measures that have been introduced to slow the spread of COVID-19. From day one, they have chafed at the need to stop public gatherings where the virus is spread and accused people who wear masks and gloves of being afraid.
Now, the pandemic skeptics are going a step further by holding protests aimed at reopening the economy. During many of these rallies, protesters crowd together without masks or protective gear, practically daring God and the virus to strike them down.
While most Americans are anxious to get back to work, as Ben Shapiro is fond of saying, facts don’t care about your feelings. In this case, the fact is that a dangerous viral pandemic is at peak levels around the country.
Restarting the economy now would be akin to dancing outside in a thunderstorm. There’s a chance that you won’t get struck by lightning but the elevated risk makes it very likely that you will. The danger is so high that most people, people with normal levels of common sense and self-preservation, would say that taking the risk would be both unnecessary and foolhardy.
There is a lot of irony in the current situation. One such bit is that, despite our technological advances, we are reduced to fighting the virus the same way that viruses have been fought for hundreds of years: With isolation and researching a vaccine. A second bit of irony is that, in our educated world, both strategies are being undercut by people who reject the scientific consensus and refuse to take a vaccine, to stay isolated, or even to take precautions such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, or washing hands.
Many Americans fail to realize that our current situation, in terms of both the pandemic and the restrictions, is not unprecedented. Just because it isn’t something that we haven’t been through, doesn’t mean that the country as a whole hasn’t experienced something similar. As a result, people who are accusing the media and government of being fearmongers are fearmongering themselves with wild claims that the pandemic is being used to usher in a coup or steal constitutional liberties.
The risks of these conspiracy theories and irrational fears are that people will abandon the social distancing that has so far worked well and that civil disturbances may be incited. Both could extend the pandemic by spreading infections. Spreading disease and inciting riots risks both thousands of lives and the economic recovery.
Pandemics are not new. The United States has experienced them before and, even with modern medicine, will experience them again. The question for our generation is, when the history of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 is written, will we be remembered as people who banded together and rose to the occasion or will we be people who cracked under pressure and couldn’t stay home for a few weeks, stoking the fire of a second wave of infections and deaths?
Originally published on The Resurgent