History doesn’t repeat itself. But sometimes it rhymes.
By now, we’ve all seen the headlines. We’ve seen the photos on social media posts, the empty supermarket shelves where toilet paper once sat. We’ve heard the warnings and the panic and the inevitable scoffs and jokes that come in response.
But as I sit “quarantined” at home plucking away at the keys on my laptop, I worry that we’re not going to see the most obvious lesson this pandemic is trying to teach us.
I worry because we’ve seen this lesson once before. And like a slap in the face, COVID-19 has reminded us we’ve forgotten it. It’s peeled back the facade of our modern sensibilities, shaken our faith in modern medicine, and evidently ratcheted up our fears of never being able to wipe our butts again. (Personally, I would have thought food would have been the first items to fly off the shelves).
But our ostensible obsession with hoarding toilet paper illustrates the larger issue here — we’ve become too comfortable.
Our modern eyes have gotten used to looking at plagues and pandemics as bullet points in history text books. And thanks to advances in science and medicine, most outbreaks in the last few decades have been confined to a few hard-luck souls in some far away village we couldn’t even point to on a map.
In reality, epidemics have been a universal constant in human history. It’s never been a question of ‘if’ they will happen, but when.
While COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be as deadly as some pandemics of the past, it’s clear that pandemics haven’t gone away. The only thing that has changed, is our understanding of them.
In Europe during the Middle Ages,
humans knew a lot less about germs than we do today, and plagues were often blamed on some kind of scapegoat.
Jews were often accused of poisoning wells, and infecting people on purpose in an attempt to take over the Christian world, and ended up suffering horrible persecution that rivaled their sufferings in the Holocaust.
In other cases, some thought the wide-spread deaths were the result of an angry or vengeful god, or perhaps even witchcraft and sorcery.
The fields of biology and medicine took fantastic leaps forward in the 19th century though, and people began to understand how germs are transmitted, and how to prevent contact and limit exposure to prevent diseases from spreading.
And since we’ve been equipped with our modern knowledge, really the only other time that a pandemic has ground society to a halt for everybody everywhere was in 1918, over a hundred years ago.
(Yes, there’s been other modern outbreaks like polio, Ebola, various influenzas and others — which were devastating if you caught them — but those tended to be more localized, and persistence and infectious rates of those diseases weren’t quite rampant enough to cause world-wide panic to the same level as the Spanish Flu, and now ostensibly, COVID-19).
When American sailors coming back from Europe after the First World War started showing symptoms of this new disease, doctors quickly identified this new strain of influenza. What they couldn’t do, however, was stop it from spreading.
And the results were horrific. Between 15 and 17 million people died in the First World War – the worst the world had seen to that point. It was such a bloody conflict that experts said such a war could never happen again. But the Spanish flu quickly eclipsed those number of deaths by the tens of millions. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of the entire world was infected with that flu.
Society of 100 years ago had on the same rose-colored glasses that we walked into 2020 wearing – we both thought world-wide pandemics were things of the past.
But they’re not. They are as dangerous and ready to pounce as they’ve ever been. And we don’t seem to have adequate medical facilities – or a sound enough mindset, for that matter – do deal with them when they inevitably pop up.
The biggest problems with COVID-19 appear to be logistical ones – we just don’t have the resources or cooperation to detect and prevent it from spreading.
And the sad truth, is that we have the money and the technology to make these epidemics a thing of the past. They don’t have to be inevitable. What we don’t have, is the politics.
For years we’ve squabbled over issues with insurance and quality of care and free handouts and “who is gonna pay for it all??” and details that all seem kind of silly when you put yourself in the shoes of an Italian person right now. (If you haven’t yet, go read some of the horror stories coming out of Italy these days.)
Have we forgotten what our potential is? Don’t we remember the Manhattan Project? Because losing the second world war may have meant Armageddon, we stopped at nothing to create the nuclear bomb. We literally harnessed the fundamental power of the sun in a age before we even had color TV. Money was never an issue. Technology was never the issue. Politics stood aside because humanity required that it to do so.
So what happens if COVID-19 mutates and starts killing off young healthy people in addition to those it has already taken? What if an entirely new pandemic pops up in another generation or two, even more deadly than this one? Will be ready next time? Will we continue to let our modern biases and our political opinions stand in the way of averting these devastating diseases, stand in the way of prevention and progress?
We’ve seen pandemics before, but never have we had the potential like we do today to finally make them a thing of the past. Which is why history doesn’t repeat itself, sometimes it just rhymes. So if that’s the case, maybe it’s time to change our tune.