Coronavirus is probably NOT going to kill us all. You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, since the reporting on this respiratory illness tends to severely hyperventilate. According to WebMD reporting, as of Tuesday, February 11, there are about 43,000 cases, the vast majority of them in China, and the number of deaths crested 1,000.
The WHO said that of 17,000 cases of the virus, 82% are mild, 15% are severe and 3% are classified as critical. Less than 2% of reported cases have died, and older people have a higher likelihood of dying.
Meanwhile, as of January, thousands of people have died due to this year’s Influenza B and H1N1 flu. People are generally lousy at accurate risk assessment.
A bell tolls somewhere deep in side us at the prospect of pandemic disease. While we may not be very good at assessing actual and immediate risk, our fear is not an irrational response.
The prospect of sudden, remorseless illness toppling us and our loved ones is terrifying. Perhaps we share some blood-memory of plagues gone by, for, through all of human history, the Rider on the Pale Horse has borne not a sword, but carried in his train bacteria and virus. And, most assuredly, someday, the Rider will come for us again in earnest…
When the Pale Rider comes, the winnowing is catastrophic. It is now believed that the Black Death that ravaged Europe with special intensity 1347–1351 may have taken off as much as 60% of the population. The Great Plague of 1665 killed about 25% of the population of London in the summer of 1665.
The physical, psychological, social, political and economic impact of such a catastrophe is hard to imagine. What would the United States look like if, say, 100 million people died horribly of some uncontrollable plague?
It would be comforting to think that such a scenario is long past us, a figment of the dark times before modern medicine developed the capacity for prevention of contagious disease and for effectively caring for the afflicted.
And yet the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918–1920 was a phenomenon of modern times — and it carried off some 50 million people, on the heels of the First World War that had slain 20 million.
Researcher Hannah Mawdsley has explored letters from the depths of the flu pandemic in Great Britain. The horror recalled the great dying of earlier days:
“Some victims suffered something called heliotrope cyanosis which was kind of a creeping blue which started in your fingertips, tips of your ears and nose and lips but you could go completely black,” she said.
“As it progressed you were more and more likely to die. Immediately after death the corpse would go completely black, which must have been very traumatic for loved ones to see.”
The relentless processions of bodies through the streets was a sight a man from Stepney in east London could never forget.
“The undertakers couldn’t make the coffins quick enough, let alone polish them,” he wrote on 16 May 1973. “The bodies changed colour so quickly after death they had to be screwed down to await burial.
“The gravediggers worked from dawn to dusk seven days a week to cope. The smell of those deaths was indescribable.”
World health organizations know full well that a catastrophic pandemic will happen again. It’s as inevitable as the Cascade Subduction Zone Earthquake. This is why aggressive efforts are made to identify and arrest pandemic disease before it gains too much momentum to control. They are very good at their work, and they have a multitude of tools that have managed to deflect the bullet many times in the modern era. But modern international travel, the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and above all the astounding capacity of viruses to mutate and spread, mean that someday, the Pale Rider will burst forth and he won’t be denied.
But before we succumb to existential panic, we might reflect on how extraordinarily resilient human society actually is in the face of pandemic. The Black Death utterly ravaged Europe in the 14th Century; by the 15th Century, the Renaissance was aborning. Europe and the United States suffered calamity after calamity in the first half of the 20th Century — War, Pestilence, Revolution, Economic Depression, War again — and yet emerged in the most extraordinary explosion of technological and material development in human history. Perversely, it was those very calamities that led to innovation on a massive scale.
Paradoxically, all that innovation appears to be leading to a crisis of sustainability that may well bring on another round of cataclysm — and so the cycle continues.
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