It is a truth universally acknowledged that in a democracy, we get the government we deserve. Hence, our complacent, morally bankrupt, money dazzled, education-scorning, science-doubting electorate selects Donald Trump as our President.
Over the past few months I have considered the potentiality of another universal truth: that we get the pandemic we deserve. Given the latest increase in coronavirus cases in a nation whose leaders—and citizenry—refuse to acknowledge the rudimentary action required to flatten the curve, the analogy is even more apt.
Consider the granddaddy of all plagues. The Black Plague is said to have killed over half the population of Europe in its first eruption (1346-1353). Then, it kept cropping up with various permutations for the next 400 years, killing 100,000 or so in London in 1665-1666, another 100,000 in Marseilles in 1720-1723. For those who survived, society was drastically altered: the reduced population led to the end of serfdom; the lack of cheap labor spurred the drive for technical innovation.
The American plagues of the sixteenth century were grotesquely effective. European explorers handily killed up to ninety percent of the indigenous people of Central and South America simply by showing up and spreading their germs. Fire breathing dragons could hardly have been more effective conquerors.
The last plague with statistically epic deaths was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which infected about five hundred million people, and killed a hundred million of us. Many more people died from Spanish Flu than in the Great War. The flu’s scope was truly global thanks to returning soldiers, who brought home an unwanted souvenir.
More recent epidemics: AIDS, Swine Flu, Ebola, Zika have distinctly different, boutique flavors. Although they each has the potential for catastrophic spread, their singular means of transmission or particular origins of outbreak, enable many of us to differentiate ourselves from those most infected—gay, African, poor, whatever. The Plague of the Middle Ages brought contagion and death to all. Whereas folks who fall outside the demographic ‘risk groups’ of AIDS or Ebola can feel immune. Worse, they can draw a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and stand in judgement of the infected.
Our current pandemic, COVID-19, is a fascinating hybrid of plagues past and present, with a few unique twists. Like The Plague, coronavirus is easily spread through a universal body function: all humans must breathe. Like the Spanish Flu, it spread with global speed, thanks to our interconnected world of air travel. Ironically, the first wave beyond China hit mainly affluent people: those with the means to fly. However, within a short time the virus settled in primarily among the poor, the aged, the vulnerable, the imprisoned, and the lowest paid among us: euphemistically relabeled ‘essential workers.’ The more you suffer the Twenty-first century diseases of poverty: obesity, diabetes, asthma; the more risk you bear for COVID.
The peculiar aspect of COVID-19 that I find most compelling as the pandemic of our time is that, compared to the great epidemics of the past, this is not a major killer. Cambridge, MA, where I live, was the site of one of the first major outbreaks on the East Coast—a conference at Biogen where a dozen or so people became infected. Three months later, about one percent of our city’s citizens have tested positive, about 10 percent of them have died. A plague that kills one/tenth of one percent of the population hardly registers on the scale of the great plagues’ past, yet it represents a significant increase in mortality in a society where people’s expectations of living long, healthy lives are magnitudes greater than those of our medieval ancestors.
In addition, this coronavirus has a relatively long incubation period, and asymptomatic carriers may transmit the virus. These attributes lend a heightened anxiety to the disease. Statistically, any individual is unlikely to contract COVID-19. And if I do, I am unlikely to die from it. However, two million infected Americans is a heck of a lot of people, and being one of them renders statistics irrelevant.
Thus, the novel symptom that coronavirus inflicts upon us more than almost any previous plague: anxiety. It’s difficult to weigh the benefits of precautions required to avoid catching the virus against the deprivations those precautions impose. I’m not talking about me, an affluent retiree who can just stay at home; or people going to bars and restaurants, baiting fate in exchange for a few laughs; or the inconsiderate guys who run around Fresh Pond without a mask. In a country with a threadbare safety net, too many folks have to choose between work and safety. For the people who already have the meanest opportunities in our country, coronavirus presents a new level of ugly choices.
Misinformation, the hallmark of America’s divided society, fuels our coronavirus anxiety. If half of us were dying, as during the Black Death, even Republicans might be forced to take notice. If only a despised demographic caught the disease, President Trump would find a way to simply sidestep it, as President Reagan did throughout years of AIDS.
But COVID-19 is an awkward, middle-ground plague. The virus kills a high number of people across a disproportionately marginalized demographic, while it also spreads enough dread and death throughout the entire population to demand notice. A pandemic whose impact on our physical health is notable, whose impact on our mental health is huge, and whose ability to bridge the chasm our divided, self-involved nation is—apparently—nil.
Note: Photo images are from Cape Cod MA; Miami, Florida; Galveston, Texas; and Southern California, in that order.