Yes, I admit it. I am a contrarian. Part of it is inborn, part of it is acquired and part of it comes from both professional experience practicing law and experience as a parent where I have learned that there are always two sides to any dispute. Which brings me to the massive collective freak-out humankind is experiencing over the Coronavirus.
Is the level of panic we are seeing proof that we are not teaching enough history to kids? Because it seems to me that this sort of thing is, well, normal. Not “it happened to me just this past Tuesday” normal, but “recorded history goes back many thousands of years” normal.
We moderns feel awfully superior to those who came long before us. We have things like refrigeration, handheld phones and antibiotics. We have explored outer space and gained the ability to understand and even manipulate DNA.
My point is that we feel so superior to those in past generations because we know so much more about so many things than they did. Ha, those silly people of the middle ages and their plague – if only they had known to kill the rats and wash their hands. Or something. Then everything would have been fine. They even had bedbugs. Oh wait – we have those again too.
The problem is that even now, we do not know everything. Like the Coronavirus. What is it? How does it travel? How long can it live? What is the most effective way to protect one’s self? We do not know these things. And in this way we can see that we are, in fact, not terribly different from those folks in the Middle Ages who were hit with something they had not yet learned.
Perhaps my thoughts here are colored a bit by some family history. I am amazed that I am not seeing more references made these days to the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. It was a genuine epidemic that had an extremely high mortality rate. And worse, it did not just pile onto the very old, very young or very weak. It hit healthy people in the prime of life and brought them down hard and fast.
I have always known about this outbreak because of my grandma Johnnie. Grandma Johnnie was one of seven kids who lived on a farm in Nebraska. Johnnie, by the way, was the nickname she eventually took on due to her maiden name of Johnson. In 1918, when Johnnie was just fourteen, the Spanish flu swept through their community. When it had passed, she had lost her mother and two of her six sisters. The flu made her a mother long before she actually became one. She had to shake off her grief and get to the hard work of raising her younger sisters until she went away to nursing school. At a school, incidentally, very far from home – chosen by her father to keep her from quitting and coming back to care for the family, a burden that should not have been hers to bear.
I do not intend to write a treatise on the 1918 flu epidemic, but there is lots out there and each of you ought to read something on it. This was not the middle ages, but was instead an era at the dawn of medicine as we know it today. This was an era with electricity, canned food, and Ford showrooms.
In my own city of Indianapolis, local history says that we were more successful than most places at practicing an effective kind of public health. And we still lost 6,000 souls, many of which were at an army base and hospital where infected soldiers landed when they came back from Europe. That death rate was about 2% of the population. Today that would be about 16,000 deaths within the area we define as “the old city limits” and closer to 40,000 victims in the greater Indianapolis area, which now stretches into several other counties.
My point is that if we step back a bit, we have to acknowledge that this sort of thing is the normal state of affairs in human history. We have become used to control. Many of us can sate our taste for chocolate ice cream on the hottest day of July within fifteen minutes of the craving. We have armies of health care providers on standby who can treat and cure almost everything but cancer, and they are working hard on that.
We would do well to recognize that control is an illusion, that human history has been nothing if not a series of examples of hubris and pride, knocked down by events we could not control. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am less confident than many in our ability to either screw up or to fix the earth’s climate. The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know. These things that we don’t know continue to come at us, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. The Coronavirus seems to me one of the latter.
Make no mistake, I don’t want to catch this new virus and I certainly don’t want to die from it. And I don’t want anyone else to either. But what I may want has no bearing on what the world is intent on dishing up for us every so often.
I will make a prediction. Humanity will deal with it. Some of us will die. Well, actually, all of us will die, but some very small proportion of us (a far, far smaller proportion than in 1918) will die from this. But the odds are that each one of us will not. The most we can hope for is to learn how this virus ticks so that we can either fight it or protect ourselves from it, or both. And hope that it does not come roaring back like the bedbugs that we in the modern America thought were things that only affected our stupid ancestors. (For the record, I have been fortunate to not experience the modern bedbug scourge firsthand – and hope to keep it that way).
The human person is the same as the human person has always been, whether that person lived in ancient Mesopotamia, in fifteenth century Scotland or in a gated community in the United States in 2020. This is our weakness. And it is also our strength.
Photo source: c. 1918 photo of an emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas during the influenza outbreak. Originally from the archives of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and found on Wikimedia Commons, under a CCA 2.0 Generic license.