Learning From The Past for A Better Future


This is not the first time in history that the world has suffered through a pandemic that altered the lives of people around the globe. We’ve all heard of the Black Plague from the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague that sent Isaac Newton into quarantine, and the Spanish flu of 1918. Our medical knowledge and communication mechanisms made it incredibly difficult to stop the spread of disease in each of those eras leading to dramatic alterations of societies and even a lowering of the average life span. It would take centuries of research and decades of twentieth dedication to finally discover to a more comprehensive understanding of how and why such diseases suddenly appear, run amok in the human population and then eventually burn out. Scientists would learn how to treat and even prevent the most dreaded infections but they would also come to the undeniable conclusion that new strains of virus and bacteria are certain to find their way into the human body again, threatening worldwide medical emergencies.

Just as we humans evolve so to do all aspects of the natural world. In a kind of symbiotic dance organisms fight for survival just as we do. In spite of our human brilliance we are continually challenged by disease. In most cases we have a somewhat clear understanding of how things work and what processes work in the fight against the threats to our general well being. The microbes that we cannot see with naked eye have to adjust to our educated assaults on them and so there is an underworld determined to take hold of our well being that goes unnoticed until a stealthy take-over arises. So it is with Covid-19, a new type of Coronavirus that has emerged to confound us.

Everything about this virus is confusing. We attempt to discern it’s patterns and just when they appear to be clear we see behaviors that don’t make sense. It is as though this tiny organism is playing with us, taunting us with its power to change our daily lives. We reel both from the deaths that it has incurred and the confusion it has set loose on society. We prefer routine and a sense of control, both of which feel more like chaos in the moment. Our calendars are useless. Our plans are on hold. Our economic security is as threatened as our health. How can it be, we wonder, that something that we cannot even see has so much power over us? What can we do, we ask, to reclaim our lives as they once were? Why, we plead, is there no clear pathway to feeling secure once again? Such is the very nature of pandemics.

Books have been written about death overwhelming the world in the form of illness. Albert Camus gave us a philosophical glance into how such moments affect our very natures in The Plague. Katherine Porter provided us with a movingly human portrait of the impact of the Spanish flu in Pale Horse, Pale Rider. In A Journal of the Plague Year Daniel Defoe provides a harrowing account of living during the 1665 plague that visited London with death and destruction of an unimaginable sort.

These accounts and others remind us of both our human frailties and our unwavering strength as living beings. From time to time throughout our history we have been jolted from our complacency into the frightening need to protect ourselves and those we love. We are no different from the people who have endured such wide sweeping contagion in the past. We feel the need to be cautious but also understand that survival is additionally about being able to provide for ourselves. Our dilemma becomes an almost unanswerable question of when to stay in the protection of our homes and when to resume the cadence of daily life without danger. Sadly the experts among us are as uncertain as we are as to which will be more deadly, returning to the crowded streets or remaining behind closed doors. They cautiously advise us and we would do well to heed their advice even as they admit their own uncertainty.

We can learn from history and from science when we are greeted by a new strain of disease but we must understand that it may or may not follow past protocols, especially one like Covid-19 that does not always behave in totally predictable ways. We do not know how or when or even if it will return in massive waves. We are unsure that catching it and surviving it leads to permanent immunity. We can only experiment to find adequate treatments. We can work on finding a vaccine but it may take time to determine if such a remediation will actually work. In the meantime economies across the globe are in a shambles. People have lost their jobs and businesses and much of their funding for retirement. They worry that their homes may be the next thing to go. Some even struggle just to have food to eat. Little wonder that depression and even anger is creeping into the atmosphere like a miasma.

The balance between maintaining control of the disease and keeping the world of work and commerce alive is tricky and if we are completely honest nobody is able to say with total confidence what is the best course of action. It’s easier to opt for staying safely at home if an income is still coming each month. It’s far more difficult to see continued lockdown as a viable route for those who have lost their livelihoods with no hope at present of finding new employment. Our compassion has to include not just those who are sick but also those who worry about how to survive in the future.

The authors and historians of old tell us that what we face around the globe is oddly echoed in moments of the past. The descriptions of life during earlier pandemics might have been written only last week. The same fears and horrors have stalked humanity again and again. Somehow those left to pick up the pieces found ways to rebuild and move forward again just as we surely will. The important thing will be to be certain that we do not do so without regard for those hardest hit by both disease and economic catastrophe. Those of us who have should be fully aware of those who have not.

If we leave this historic moment without learning from its lessons we will have missed an opportunity to become better than we were only weeks ago. How we choose to behave in the coming weeks will determine the trajectory of history. If we selfishly move forward without regard and respect for both the virus and the economic health of the world I fear that the fatalities of both body and spirit will be innumerable. If, on the other hand, we are able to be the good news that we so desire I think that we will ultimately be just fine. I believe that we have it in us to be the change that we wish to see in the world. We just have to learn from the past and strive for a better future.


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