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BC's Tales of the Pacific | How will history remember Covid-19?

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IT is too soon for historians to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. However, we can start asking the question: how will history remember this era? A look back at other health emergencies will not only give us guidance but will help us place Covid in perspective.

 

Let’s do a little fact-checking. Covid is a new virus that no one had contracted before a few months ago. That means there was not a person alive who had internal immunity to it. Therefore, probably every human on Earth will get Covid-19 eventually. So why all the quarantines and drastic government action? These measures are not designed to prevent us from catching the virus, only to keep us all from catching it at once. The health care industry can only handle so many of us being sick at the same time.

That is why you hear so much about “flattening the curve.” It is vital that only some of us be sick at any one time, but eventually all of us likely will be.

Another point to keep in mind is the difference between prevention and mitigation. Prevention describes measures intended to keep us from getting the virus, such as quarantines and curfews. Mitigation deals with measures taken after a significant portion of the population has it, minimizing the effects both on an individual and societal level. Currently, most governments are in prevention mode. Once control has been lost, governments will devote more resources to mitigation. Think of it as a house fire. There are steps you take to make your home less prone to fire (proper chimney and building materials), steps you take once a small fire has started (fire extinguisher, trying to prevent the spread), and steps you take after the home is engulfed (call the fire department and get your family out). We are clearly in phase two.

Although some in the media and government are hyping this crisis for their own purposes, a look into the past will help us put Covid-19 in its proper place. For starters, this does not qualify as a truly great disaster. Not yet. The Bubonic Plague of 1348-50 ravaged Europe and most of the rest of the world, killing perhaps one third of the human population. There was no cure and a painful death occurred within days of contracting it. In some communities, not enough people were left alive to bury the dead. Whole towns in Germany and England simply disappeared. To be as deadly as the Plague, Covid-19 would have to kill an estimated three billion people. We are currently somewhere between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand dead.

About one hundred years ago, the worst pandemic swept the planet, killing many more people than the Plague, although since more people were alive at the time, the percentage was less. The Spanish Flu came out of nowhere and killed indiscriminately, targeting the healthy and middle-aged for some unknown reason. Typically, epidemics hit hardest among the very young and very old, but not Spanish Flu. The death curve was upside down. Then, after half a billion people got infected and twenty to fifty million people died, the influenza just went away. Gone. We did not beat it. Scientists did not develop a cure. It simply killed all it was going to kill and then hibernated. The inescapable conclusion is that it is still here, among us, waiting for the right time to show up again.

By the way, a word on terminology. Throughout history we have often named pandemics after the place they originated. While there is some debate about whether the Spanish Flu started in Spain (current research suggests it started in Kansas, USA), there is no doubt that Covid-19 started in China. Therefore, President Trump is quite in keeping with historic and medical practice by calling this the China Flu.
Which brings me to my final point. Since December, China has been fighting to rewrite the narrative of Covid-19. Rather than accepting their unfortunate place in this crisis as Ground Zero, the Chinese government has sent talking points for all its diplomats and medical officials.

Point One, China is not a villain but a hero for buying time for the world to prepare. By carrying the burden of Covid-19 alone, the rest of us gained valuable time to study the disease and prepare countermeasures.

Point Two, the virus did not originate in China at all. In fact, the United States is somehow to blame. Thus, their objection to the term China Flu. China does not outright accuse the Americans of starting the pandemic, at least not as of this writing, but uses suggestive questions such as, “Is it really so that the flu started in Wuhan? What evidence do you have? Couldn’t it just as easily have started in America? Or perhaps the Americans developed a biological weapon and used it on China? Is it so far-fetched?”

Point Three, China is here to help because your government has failed you. One of the most obvious deflections the Chinese are using is that the spread of Covid-19 demonstrates the utter failure of democratic forms of government and capitalist economic systems. Never mind that their autocratic government, with unopposed control of political and economic systems, failed just as miserably to stop the spread.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

 

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