“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ George Santayana
It feels as though we have come a very long way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s only been about 6 months. Considering we may have up to another year to go and winter is on it’s way to the Northern hemisphere, maybe it’s time to get some historical perspective on what we’re up against. I was both alarmed and comforted while doing research for this post; alarmed at just how dangerous this disease is – even compared to some of the worst viruses of the past – and comforted that there’s so much proof that keeping distance from others, wearing facial coverings and isolating have always worked before to corral deadly diseases. There’s much wisdom to garner from the history of epidemics and pandemics and I hope this brief conversation I’m offering will prove helpful.
The Bubonic Plague of the 17th Century
Bubonic Plague, called the Black Death, has been around for centuries, and although not at all the killer it once was, it is still with us today. It’s a very ugly disease where the victim’s skin turns black in patches around painfully swollen lymph nodes. People also are known to suffer from splitting headaches, swollen tongues and sporadic vomiting, making this disease a painful killer.
In 1665, the Bubonic Plague began taking a toll in London in the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Field. Although it started slowly, the number of deaths increased rapidly as the disease spread: only around 43 in May, more than 6000 in June, over 17,000 in July and 31,100 plus at its peak in August. All told in that one summer, the area around London saw close to 15% of its population die. The disease, however, was not done by any means. It continued to spread throughout the more rural communities of England until December of 1666; more than a year after the London scourge ended. For me, this story has an eerie and familiar ring to it.
A Small but Heroically Brave Village in Derbyshire, England
Enter the people of Eyam, a small village of less than 800 people and nearly 170 miles North West of London, with a courageous story that will long be remembered. In October of 1665, a bale of cloth for the tailor arrived in Eyam from a London address. The damp cloth was infested with fleas which no one at the time knew were carrying and spreading the plague. As the story goes, the tailor’s assistant opened the bale, hung the cloth by the hearth to dry, and unknowingly loosed the contaminated fleas into the community.
When people in Eyam began to die of the plague, they were terrified. Many wanted to leave the village to find safety in villages not already infected by the disease. But before very many citizens left, the newly appointed rector, William Mompesson, stepped in. Believing it was his duty to stop the plague from spreading any further, he decided the village of Eyam should quarantine itself. He asked the former and very popular rector, Thomas Stanley, who still lived in town, to support him in his efforts.
Stanley agreed. and on June 24, 1666, seven months into the growing catastrophe in Eyam, Mompesson, with Stanley at his side, told his parishioners the village must be quarantined. No one would be allowed in or out for any reason until the plague was over. Mompesson also told the community that the Earl of Devonshire, living nearby at Chatsworth, had offered to send plenty of food and supplies to Eyam if all the villagers would agree to be quarantined. And Mompesson told them that if they agreed to stay (essentially an agreement to a death sentence) he would stay as well, sacrificing his own life to do all he could to alleviate their pain and suffering. Although reluctantly in many cases, the villagers agreed to the quarantine and very few, if any, ever left the village until after the plague was over. About 260 people in Eyam died from the disease. Some families were totally wiped out. But the people had fully understood the meaning of what they were doing, the lives they were saving over all, and the idea that their own sacrifice was in the name of a divine and greater good for humanity.
Dr Michael Sweet, a specialist at the University of Derby, said, “The decision to quarantine the village meant that human-to-human contact, especially with those outside of the village was basically eliminated which would have certainly significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen. It is remarkable how effective the isolation was in this instance.”
The Spanish Flu in the 20th Century
Influenza may be the 20th and the 21st century’s form of plague. The Spanish flu was a very deadly pandemic known as the 1918 flu pandemic. It lasted from the spring of 1918 into the early summer of 1919 and infected 500 million people. The death toll has been estimated at about 50 million, maybe even more since it is so difficult to monitor and track all the people who become infected and die during plagues and pandemics. Since there are no vaccines to protect populations against influenza and no known antibiotics to treat the secondary bacterial infections it causes, the ways to contain the spread of influenza viruses are limited to isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings.
James Harris, a historian at Ohio State University, believes the rapid spread of the Spanish flu in the fall of 1918 was partially to blame on public health officials who would not impose quarantines during the final stages of World War I. According to research done by Harris, a British governmental official, Sir Arthur Newsholme, concluded that “the relentless needs of warfare justified incurring [the] risk of spreading infection.” He encouraged the people of England to simply “carry on” in spite of the pandemic; a political stance that surely contributed to the further spread of the flu that fall and increasing the death toll. Again, I hear an eerie, familiar tone and a lack of wisdom in Sir Arthur Newsholme’s words. George Santayana’s quote about “those who can not remember the past” comes back to haunt me, yet again.
(Note: Although there is no possible way to attach accurate numbers to how many deaths were directly caused by the Spanish flu, it is still widely accepted that the second round, during the winter of 1918 and the spring of 1919, took more lives than the first round had done during the summer and fall of 1918.)
The COVID-19 Pandemic of the 21st Century
There has been at least one epidemic (usually many more) in every century since the 1300’s. Plagues are less frequent but they are not unexpected phenomenons either. Plagues, epidemics and pandemics have existed throughout human history. Even knowing this, the COVID-19 virus has taken the entire world by storm. If we see a second round in this pandemic, it has every possibility of infecting and killing far more people than the Spanish flu did in the early 1900’s. COVID-19 is closely related to the SARS virus (2002 & 2003), and is also related to the MERS virus (2012). All three are in the same family of viruses that cause the common cold. While the medical community has a bit of a lead on the COVID-19 pandemic because of their work to find a vaccine for SARS, it is worth noting there is still no vaccine for the AIDS virus and no known cure for the common cold. Scientists will likely find treatments for COVID-19 that will keep this disease under control, as with AIDS, but they may or may not discover a vaccine against it. And, as long as we keep studying the history of such diseases around the world, we will know better what to expect and be more able to contain them through tried and true measures.
With all this in mind, will we in 2020-2021 be condemned to repeat what happened in the early 1900’s with the Spanish flu epidemic? Or maybe we can look to the proof we already have during the COVID-19 pandemic so far; that isolating as much as possible is the best course of action. There are piles of scientific evidence to prove limiting public gatherings, staying at least a 6 foot distance from others, and wearing facial masks have made huge differences in containing the spread of this virus around the globe. How many more people would have died in Germany, France, Seattle or New York City if the citizenry had not been willing to take extra and extreme precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19?
I think it will be up to “we, the people” to determine our destiny with regard to the COVID-19 virus. It won’t be easy, but I believe our survival depends on our capacity as humans for maturity, knowledge, wisdom, and care. If not us, who?