I was talking to a friend the other day. Both of us are vaxxed and we both continue to mask up when we have to leave the safety of our caves and my friend said: “COVID’s with us from here on out. People need to get used to it.”
I’ve been thinking that since the first year of this latest pandemic — yeah, LATEST. Because pandemics are part of human history (see this timeline), and, because humans can also be colossal dicks, there have always been anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists and the whole bag of squirrels that goes along with that.
Here’s a nice piece from Scientific American that gives you the denialist playbook. No doubt a lot of that is going to sound familiar if you’ve been paying attention. And these movements can cause a lot of damage. (if you’re interested, an intrepid Redditor collected several images of articles and flyers over the past century that are eerily prescient for what we’re dealing with today)
I’ve been reading up on pandemics and different historical eras and I’m struck by how widespread disease interacts with sociopolitical structures. Pandemics have, indeed, changed the course of human history and like others before it, COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has exposed the underlying rot and rifts in countries (including the US) and systemic inequalities and tensions. So everything feels out of control and like a train wreck — for good reason. It is.
Professor of Italian history Paula Findlen at Stanford talked about 14th-century Italians dealing with bubonic plague in a 2020 interview and had this to say:
For Italians in the 14th-century, plague at first seemed extraordinary, then it became ordinary, even endemic. People responded creatively to the initial waves of plague. They thought about life and death, love and friendship, sickness and health differently. They took the moral pulse of their society, while getting down and dirty in the political struggles of the age. Once people got used to the idea that plague would periodically return, it became an economic annoyance, a catalyst for social negotiation and an administrative problem to resolve. The arc and duration of each outbreak became a measure of the success and failure of public health, rather than a subject of great reflection. Hospitals and charitable institutions benefited from the ongoing need to experiment with how to care and cure, and how to tend compassionately to the poor in the midst of the horrors and fears of a major pandemic.
[SOURCE: “For Renaissance Italians, combating black plague was as much about politics as it was science, according to Stanford scholar,” by Melissa DeWitte, Stanford News (May 12, 2020)]
Speaking of Italy and plagues, I discovered that some of the things that continue today put in place to deal with widespread disease can be found in Italy hundreds of years ago. Quinto Tiberio Angelerio was a doctor in the Italian town of Anghero when a plague swept through in 1582. Alghero is on the island of Sardinia and this plague outbreak killed almost half the population.
Angelerio had survived an earlier plague in 1575 in Sicily and thus had developed some practices to help combat transmission. So when three people died after developing symptoms in Alghero, Angelerio went directly to the city leaders and told them to start isolating other people with symptoms. Most city officials balked, but the viceroy prevailed and soon the town was locked down and guards patrolled its borders to ensure compliance.
And because people are dicks (and have been forever), some of the population freaked out about the measures and called for the lynching of Angelerio. But when the plague swept through the city, Angelerio was entrusted with taking further measures, and he would later list those in a 1588 pamphlet.
Some of the recommendations are wackadoo by today’s standards (I mean, the understanding of disease was rudimentary), but others are basically common sense: forbidding meetings, dances, and gatherings; disinfect (using heat) anything that had been in contact with someone with plague; and house lockdowns except for necessities (like food shopping; one person at a time and you had to get permission). And if you had to go out, you had to carry a six-foot cane and it was necessary, Angelerio said, to keep that distance between yourself and others.
So humans have been dealing with pandemics for centuries.
The truth is, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle or, in this case, the virus back into the original vector. COVID-19 is now among humans, after making the leap from its previous hosts and, like viruses do, it mutates and lays waste to us, its new hosts, who don’t have any natural immunity to this disease. It doesn’t mean we won’t eventually get some immunity, or that more effective treatments won’t be developed. It just means that right now, our systems don’t have the hardware or virus protection to combat this threat. In a few years, perhaps, this particular COVID manifestation might actually end up being “like the flu”
But until that happens — better treatments, better vaccines, possibly the development of immune responses that are more effective against this damn thing — it behooves us as a species to take care of ourselves and each other in our communities and we do that by masking, keeping our distance, vaccinating (if possible), and using common sense: wash your hands effectively and often (and show kids how to do it, too); eat right, exercise, try to engage in self-care. Also, check in with people who might not have access to basic hygiene products to do that and help provide them, whether in your community or through donation sites to populations that don’t have them. Build some community if you can, and also, see what lessons you can glean from history.
The point is, humans have weathered plague storms before, detractors and assclowns included. And we’ve done it with a lot fewer resources and a lot less knowledge. But take measures to help you and others weather this storm. Such things have been in place for centuries, after all. And maybe use this “new normal” to start making some real change in your life and in your community. But please take precautions and stay safe.