Life in the Time of Corona
100 Days of Solitude
(apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
So, we’re facing a situation none of us not only has never experienced before but never, even in our wildest imaginings, could have anticipated. Given that, I thought I’d do a little research to see if living in our obsessively “connected” technological world might actually help us deal with this crisis better than our forebears, faced with comparable crises. Reaching way back, I decided to check out the Black Death, from the 14th century (generally estimated at 1347 to 1351, according to Wikipedia), the “Spanish flu” from a century ago, as well as the 2009 flu pandemic (which some of us may remember).
The Black Death, also called the Black Plague, the Pestilence, the Great Plague, the Great Mortality, and the Great Bubonic Plague, resulted in an estimated 75 to 200 million deaths in Europe and Eurasia in the mid-14th century. Originating in Central or East Asia and traveling along the Silk Road, the Black Plague eliminated anywhere from 30% to 60% of Europe’s population in less than half a decade! It took 200 years for Europe to recover its population and, according to Wikipedia, the city of Florence didn’t recover until the 19th century (remember, Florence was a major commercial city in the 1300’s). We now know, of course, that the disease was caused by fleas carried by ground rodents (rats, primarily). China had already experienced a lethal plague before Europe/Eurasia, killing an estimated 25 million people prior to the 1347 European/Eurasian Plague outbreak. Conflicts between Mongols and Italian traders led to transmission of the disease (the Chinese actually catapulted dead/infected corpses into the city of Kaffa, where Genovese traders then transported disease back to Italy). Without science (remember, all this pre-dates the Renaissance and Enlightenment) OR mass communication (it was about a century before Gutenberg & movable type) Europe was decimated. Given that we have 24/7 communication and FaceTime technology, etc.---something our European/Eurasian ancestors did not have --- we should be able to better deal with our pandemic.
In 1918 an influenza pandemic (generally called the “Spanish flu”) lasted from January 1918 until December of 1920 (3 years!). It was the first of two H1N1 influenza virus pandemics (the second being our 2009 flu pandemic). The 1918 pandemic infected about 27% of the world’s population at that time (about 500 million people) and killed anywhere between 17 to 50 million people. Because it first appeared during World War I, there was censorship --- to maintain morale --- which suppressed news (and action/reaction) about the disease. Because Spanish newspapers widely reported the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII --- while France, Germany, and the UK suppressed news --- the disease was dubbed “The Spanish Flu.” The most current research indicates that “malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene promoted bacterial superinfection” (wiki) killing most of those who contracted that strain of the influenza. We should note that there was a first wave of the flu that proved lethal but not overwhelming. Then, a second wave of the virus, mutated into a new, stronger strain began to take far more lives. In general, “modern” transportation (shipping, railroads, automobiles) facilitated the wide-scale spread of the virus.
The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic infected between 11-21% of the global population at the time (700 million to 14 billion people!). There were between 150,000 to 575,000 fatalities but a September 2010 study indicated this was no more lethal than the usual “flu season,” which may be why your memory of this event is less than stellar --- particularly since most people (in the U.S.) were focused on the spiraling economic crisis and the recovery attempts. (all stats from Wiki) For those of us older folks, you may also recall 1957’s “Asian” flu (33,000 fatalities) and 1968’s “Hong Kong” flu (75,000 fatalities). The problem with flu epidemics is that the disease tends to mutate quickly and, even though we have developed vaccines, there is a need for constant vigilance and adaptation from the medical community.
So, what can we learn from history? First and foremost, the coronavirus is not a “flu” so I wouldn’t get hopes up that it may recede quickly as the 2009 (and the 1957, and the 1968) flu epidemic. By the same token, it is not the Black Plague and we will not lose 30 to 60% of the world’s population. However, what we can see from the 1918 pandemic, “modern transportation” and censorship of information does contribute to spreading a pandemic. China’s suppression of the news from Wuhan along with the slow response by the Italian and U.S. governments, combined with “who knows?” how many infected people traveling on airplanes, cruise ships, railroads, subways, Ubers, etc. are already out and about in our population --- that’s anybody’s guess. The 1918 flu pandemic appears to have started in Kansas (the result of an avian/duck flu transmitted to a pig who already had a human flu infection and proved to be a Petri dish for “viral sex,” creating a new & lethal strain of influenza) and was spread by Army troops traveling to Europe for the Great War --- passing it on to international soldiers and spreading the virus. American troops sent to quell the Bolshevik Revolution (those who remember Warren Beatty’s “Reds” may recall this historical fact) carried it to Asia in 1919, also extending the spread of the disease. Given that we do not have extensive testing going on in the United States yet, there is no telling, at the current time, how widespread this virus is. What we can probably safely predict is that the more testing there is, the higher the numbers (and the fatalities) will climb.
What can we do? Obviously reducing contact with other people is paramount. If you exhibit symptoms (high fever & trouble breathing in particular) call your doctor and see if you need to be tested. Don’t panic! STOP buying ALL the toilet paper! Use technology to substitute for face-to-face contact. Cook your own food, if you can. Only go out for essentials but still get some exercise (walk, walk, walk). Looking at history, we should prepare for a months-long siege with this virus and hope it, somehow, will recede sooner. Not the brightest picture, for sure, but if you’re feeling healthy right now do everything you can to stay healthy --- and to keep all those you know healthy. We will get through this. We may lose people we know along the way --- a tragedy no matter when that occurs. BUT we need to find new ways to deal, to cope, to soldier through. It will pass. It will end. We just don’t know when and there’s nothing humans like less than uncertainty. There’s no choice here. We all need to learn to live with the uncertainty as best we can. Don’t panic. “Stay calm and carry on” as best as you can. Consider that you now have lots of time to catch up on all that Content on the streaming networks, you’ll have the time to write that novel you always wanted to compose, you’ll have the time to learn or perfect your ability on a musical instrument, etc. etc.
As T.S. Eliot pointed out, shortly after the 1918 pandemic struck:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” . . .
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
So, while we’re isolating/quarantining/sheltering (whatever) disturb your universe
and know that you have time for “decisions and revisions” until we get an “All Clear.”