Plagues of the distant past
When we think of plagues that have wiped out entire civilizations we often jump to what we’ve read about in history books.
The Black Death (1346 to 1353), for instance, wiped out half of Europe’s population. And in the 16th century, when Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought with them a host of diseases, including smallpox, which were largely responsible for the collapse of the Inca and Aztec civilizations. Quite tragically, approximately 90% of the population of the Western hemisphere died because of European-borne disease.
Did you know that smallpox has actually been around for 12,000 years and has killed between 300 to 500 million people?
Even so, until recently, pandemics have often felt very far away. We’ve largely gone about our daily lives without worry of a global civilization killer.
But then recently all of our lives were upended in a very real way — almost like a page out of the history books — when a diseased bat in Wuhan, China introduced us to the novel coronavirus, which still continues to affect every corner of the globe.
The images of our lives for months and months have been quite jarring. We never could have imagined our day to day lives could include wearing masks to the grocery store, hanging out in the park with our friends but sitting six feet apart on blankets, the eerie sight of empty shelves, cancelling school for our kids, and seeing small businesses shut down. Overnight, human contact became dangerous for all and deadly for some.
From all of this, though, we can either panic and feel bad about the state of the world, or we can take a moment to pause, learn from our present and our past, and equip ourselves to face the future with hope — and probably a little more soap.
Though we call it the novel (or “new”) coronavirus, disease itself is nothing new.
It’s also not something that has only affected the ancient world. In recent years we’ve seen diseases take out countless lives, and many continue to do so still.
For instance, one of the biggest killers was in 1918, when over a third of the world’s population became infected with Influenza, and between 20 million and 50 million people sadly lost their lives.
In the 1950’s, the Asian Flu took out 2 million people, and in the 1960’s Influenza took out 1 million. More recently, in 2009 the Swine Flu pandemic infected as many as 1.4 billion people around the world, and killed up to 575,400 people.
Numbers aside, one of the reasons COVID-19 is so scary is that it spreads so easily and also affects everyone differently. Some people experience no symptoms at all, and some find themselves quickly on a ventilator. Because of this, a lot of misinformation has been spread.
The World Health Organization has compiled a great list of myths and the facts to debunk those myths. Drinking alcohol or bleach does not cure COVID-19, mosquitoes do not spread COVID-19, and people of all ages have been affected by COVID-19.
Just as the spread of disease is nothing new, neither is the spread of misinformation.
Since 1981, the death toll for another pandemic that continues to affect us, HIV/AIDS, is now at a staggering 36 million. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has had a long history of affecting specific populations around the globe. Along with it, too, came unhealthy stigmas and misunderstandings.
On July 3, 1981, The New York Times published an article which labeled the disease a “gay cancer.” At the time, not much was known about the disease and many thought it was just something that affected gay men only.
Long story short, this began a many-years-long misunderstanding that the virus only affected gay populations and wasn’t something that should concern all people. Now we know this isn’t the case.
Now we know that if a disease begins to affect a small segment of the population, it eventually reaches the rest.
In fact, in the early days of COVID-19 many dismissed it with claims that it was “just the flu,” or that “it only affects old people,” or “that’s something only happening in Asia.”
In many ways HIV/AIDS has been a case study in what can happen when misinformation and myths are spread around as facts. Things are not always what they seem. For instance, 24% of new HIV infections in 2016 occurred in heterosexuals, many of whom were women. Also, the majority of people living with HIV/Aids now are primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa.
HIV/AIDS continues to affect us all. In 2018 alone, 37,968 people in the United States received an HIV diagnosis. While it is important to remember that the fight against HIV/AIDS is not over, it’s also important to remember that it is no longer the death sentence it once was and there are many more preventive treatments available.
While there’s still more to do, we’ve come a very, very long way. Two people may have even been cured.
So what’s the big lesson here?
Always get the facts, and remember that we’ll get through this like we’ve gotten through everything else.
Disease of any kind — and the possibility of death — is a scary thing, but it’s a fact of life on this planet. With incremental understanding and incremental improvement, we’ll get better and better at facing it with more and more calm.
Many of us may have lost someone in the coronavirus pandemic or even a pandemic of the recent past. What’s encouraging, though, is that as time goes on, as we make strides towards cures, as we learn from our mistakes, as we understand each other more and more, things get better.
That is also a fact of life on this planet: things always improve.
At the end of the day, humanity doesn’t give up. We keep going no matter what. We don’t give up on each other. We take lessons from history. There are dark times, and then, things get better. Today, right now, for you, for us, is no different.
So remember, better days are coming.