10 diseases to celebrate from our past

“Man plans and God laughs”

You have to love PBS. They either have excellent timing, or they have a cruel or at least insensitive program director. The other night as my wife and I were settling into that special time of the night when the television is given the run of the house, I noticed that on PBS they were airing one of their better programs, the American Experience. On this particular night, the episode airing on the American Experience was called Influenza, 1918. The documentary which was not only interesting, but really well made, told the story of the horrible plague known erroneously as the “Spanish Flu.” (Nobody knows where it began, but since Spain was neutral during WWI, they were one of the few countries that was free to report on the flu where as other countries at war censored information. Since Spanish newspapers were the only ones in Europe that had accounts of the flu, it was dubbed the , “Spanish Flu.” Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t call COVID-19 the “Chinese Flu?”) At one point, it looked like it was going to wipe out the world right in the middle of World War One which also seemed to carry the same potential.

As a history teacher, I was already aware of some of the information presented in the documentary, however I did learn that a famous nursery rhyme was born of this insidious disease that caught on almost as fast as the disease itself. It went something like this:

I once had a bird

Its name was Enza

I opened up the window, and

in-flew-enza (Influenza)

(You know, a lot of nursery rhymes from the past found their roots in human suffering. Ring around the rosy anyone? You Tube)

Here we are, 100 years later, and once again we find ourselves plagued by humanity’s oldest scourge, disease. Will COVID-19 spawn nursery rhymes much as its plague like predecessor the influenza virus of 1918 did over 100 years ago? Well let’s see:

There once was a lady who lived in a shoe

She and her children didn’t practice social distancing

and now they live in a flip-flop

Okay, that wasn’t very good, but don’t give up on me yet.

Red rover, red rover,

Don’t send that fu#&in’ kid with corona over

There you go, kids will be singing this in homes across the country.

This scene from Oakland, California in 1918 doesn’t look like something we would have to worry about in modern times. It appears to be nothing more than a problem from a bygone era. (Getty Images)

It would appear we were not as omnipotent as we had led ourselves to believe.

Hospitals overcrowded, doctors and nurses stressed to the breaking point, our health care system desperately under-equipped and unprepared, all of this despite the fact that we’ve seen this before. History will always repeat itself, and for some reason we will always feign surprise when it does. It’s a shame the COVID-19 infection curve isn’t nearly as flat as humanity’s learning curve. (New York Times)

COVID-19 seems to have come from nowhere and caught the world flat-footed. It has in just a few short months wrecked havoc upon the world’s economic, social, and physical well-being. In many ways, the damage has just begun. Even in New York, where the virus has proven to be far more devastating than anywhere else in the United States, we are estimated to be at least a month away from seeing a peak in the infectious rate. In addition, it’s been suggested that the economic damage being ravaged upon the United States as well as the world could turn out to be far deeper and long-lasting than the financial crisis that set off the worldwide recession of 2008–2009. Unemployment in the United States could potentially reach over 30%, higher than the greatest depths of the Great Depression. If only we could have seen this coming.

Except, how could we have not seen this coming? History remains the best predictor of the future. Behaviors and historical events typically repeat themselves, and yet somehow we are often caught unaware. As the good people of PBS pointed out in a program that may or may not have been made possible by a donation from the Chubb Group, we have tangled with pandemics before, and we usually lose..badly. Take a look at these infamous epidemics/pandemics that have caused more than their share of mischief..

  1. HIV/AIDS Pandemic 2005–2012: In the seven years of this pandemic, HIV/AIDS killed approximately two million people annually. Back in the 1980s when the then mysterious disease began to rear its ugly head, it took President Ronald Reagan four years to even mention it publicly. Not his best moment.
  2. Flu Pandemic (1968) — It began in Hong Kong, and was even referred to as the “Hong Kong Flu.” While its mortality rate wasn’t exceptionally high, it still killed over one million people. (Rumor has it that Eric Trump calls it the “Hong Kong Fluey.”)
  3. Asian” Flu (1956–58) — It began in China, and it killed more than two million people including 69,000 in the United States. (This is why I don’t go around carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.)
  4. Flu Pandemic (1918) — While numbers may vary, it is claimed that this variation of the flu killed somewhere between 20 to 50 million people, many of them healthy individuals in their 20s. Even more outlandish, the usual victims of the flu, those who are either very young, or very old with compromised immune systems, seemingly were unaffected.
  5. Sixth Cholera Pandemic (1910–11) I for one hate sequels, I find them lazy, and uninspired, and this one turned out to be fairly lazy as well, at least when it arrived in the U.S., killing only 11 thanks to the fact that we had actually learned from previous cholera outbreaks and quickly quarantined those with the disease. This pandemic started in India where it killed over 800,000.
  6. Flu Pandemic (1889–90) — It was believed to have begun in Russia, or Central Asia, and thanks to urbanization it spread quickly killing approximately one million worldwide.
  7. Third Cholera Pandemic (1852–60) — Once again it began in India, and one million people worldwide would die from it. Fortunately, John Snow (No, not that “Jon Snow”) in 1854 discovered in a poor section of London that the disease was born of filthy water. This discovery however did not prevent 23,000 people in London from dying from the disease.
  8. The Black Death (1346–53) — With an estimated death toll of 75 to 200 million, the “Black Death” certainly earned its name. It most likely spread from Asia by way of the fleas that were found on Rats. (This is why I was one of the first public figures to call for all rats to be fitted with flea collars, but it never came to pass as “Fox News” called it out as another attempt by the Liberals to instill Socialism on our great Republic.)
  9. Plague of Justinian (541–542) — The death toll was estimated to be around 25 million, and it wiped out half of Europe. It is considered the first recorded acknowledgement of the bubonic plague, and it got its name from the great Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. (I’m not sure that it’s fair to name a disease after the leader of a particular empire or country, I mean it’s not like Justinian called it a “hoax,” or claimed that it would just disappear, or that it would die in warm weather, or that he did something petty and childish like dismantling his entire disease response team, or sought to cut funding to fight disease or anything grotesquely stupid or incompetent like that? Hmm, “Plague of Trump,” anybody?)
  10. Antonine Plague ((165A.D.) — It was believed to have been brought back to the Roman Empire by soldiers from Asia Minor. It killed five million people, and decimated the Roman army.

If you want to blame anybody for the flu pandemic of 1968, then blame those damn hippies, didn’t they know anything about “social distancing.” Can’t you “tune in, turn on, and drop out” from six feet apart? On the other hand, the 1968 flu pandemic was by far the most groovy of all pandemics….man! (Getty Images)

Despite plague after plague, and pandemic after pandemic, we are still taken by surprise by these events. Here in 2020, the unthinkable has happened. We have been somehow blindsided both mentally and physically by this COVID-19 infection, even though history tells us we should have seen it coming. How is this so? I believe there are several plausible theories:

  1. The Titanic Theory: It was supposed to be unsinkable. Geez, talk about putting a target on your back, why not just ask to be sunk? The H.M.S. Titanic represented something much more than just a luxury liner, it represented humanity’s ultimate triumph over nature. Filled with hubris and overconfidence, human beings were now delighted to announce that they had won the final victory over nature and God. A machine so perfect, that it would be impervious to the elements. In many ways, our approach to infectious disease is the same. This isn’t 1918 where we didn’t even know what the flu virus looked like since no microscope had been invented that was powerful enough to see this particular virus, we are supremely confident that we know what’s out there, and we can react in real time to defeat whatever is thrown our way. We understand infections, the importance of cleanliness, taking precautions, and good nutrition, we are well-armed against such things. It is the very arrogance that brought down the Titanic, that is now taking a sledgehammer to our society as we speak.
  2. The Tower of Babel Hypothesis — In the famous biblical story, humanity decides that they are going to build a giant tower and attempt to reach heaven so they can see and speak to God directly. After all, who does this guy think he is? God, amused, and then annoyed by the whole thing messes up the planning of this great and early attempt at a public works project by giving everybody involved in the construction a different language so they can’t communicate, and thus a multilingual world was born. The symbolism here is on display for all to see. This is the hubris of our species on display. The Bible is taking pains to point out that as humans we erroneously believe that we are all knowing, and we can challenge authority, even the ultimate authority. How does this apply to our current situation? Think about Trump and his enablers, and how they responded to the COVID-19 crisis. This idea that Trump, simply going by instinct is somehow more knowledgeable than the science and medical experts is a classic example of this hubris. The fact that his administration dismissed so much of the data and information that was being gathered by the W.H.O., claiming it to be a hoax just three weeks ago shows us that the bible still has lessons for us. (Incidentally, the leader of the attempt to build the “Tower of Babel” was a man named Nimrod. So if you’ve ever called somebody a “Nimrod,” you’ve really hit them where it hurts.)
  3. The Ignorance is Bliss Supposition — There are many out there who’ve done everything they can to stay as uninformed as possible. Now on the surface, I don’t blame them. The news is so sensationalized, and so filled with dread and horror that we’re not going to have to worry about COVID-19 killing us since we’re all going to kill ourselves if we watch more than an hour of CNN. However, especially when the the story first broke, there were many who dismissed this as a hoax, as the president had said, or watched Fox News and claimed that the whole thing was one big exaggeration. Yes the news is selective about what it presents. Not everybody dies who gets it as the news would seem to be telling us, but this is the most serious health crisis to hit our country in over 100 years, not paying attention to it won’t make it go away.
  4. The Man Plans and God Laughs Proposition — Human beings, but especially Americans like to believe themselves to be masters of their own fate. We live by our planners, our schedules that are kept on our iPhones, and our Google Calendars. In the modern world in which we live, we live to plan and plan to live, and we believe that only through our own lack of preparation (Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.) skill, fortitude, or through our own weaknesses and laziness are we kept from accomplishing that in which set out to do, or enjoy the things we wish to involve ourselves in. We have our plans, and we believe that if we are strong enough, nothing will get in the way of said plans. That is until fate plays its hand, and then anything and everything we believed to be is turned on its ear. You thought you were going on vacation, you believed that you were switching jobs, you thought you had a big date this Saturday night? Uh oh, here comes corona!

Whether it’s the Bible, ancient Greek literature, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, human literature is littered with examples of our arrogance and supposed omnipotence until something, usually unseen brings us to our knees. (Getty Images)

It is not known how long this coronavirus conundrum will last, and what the final numbers will look like. If we’ve learned anything perhaps it’s that we should stop trying to guess, leave science to the scientists and medical experts, and perhaps put our faith in those in the know as opposed to those who who are so filled with hubris and pomposity that they believed themselves smarter than the experts. A lesson learned might mean that those who died during this terrible time in our history won’t have died in vain. Maybe for their sake the next time the entire scientific community tries to tell us something such as, I don’t know, that the planet’s climate is changing in a dangerous way, and human activity is the cause, we won’t take the word of a reality show host over every PhD on the planet. Yes, it would be nice just for once to walk away from one of these scientific or medical disasters and declare, “Lesson learned!” as opposed to “Fake news!”



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