"Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims," by Pierart dou Tielt (c. 1353)

We are told that the height of the coronavirus pandemic is upon us. Let’s consider some pandemic history, not only of COVID-19, but all the pandemics, and how we never really learned much from one to the next, right up till now. Add to this some recognition for an obscure doctor from China — the first hero in this current pandemic struggle. And we’ll close with the point that these pandemics are basically “the same, but different.”

When serious and incurable disease spreads through a country, it’s known as an epidemic. Once it crosses the borders to other countries, it qualifies as a pandemic. According to F.C. Cartwright’s excellent book, “Disease and History” (2014), the invisible agents of death in most pandemics have been malaria, TB, leprosy, smallpox and influenza.

The earliest recorded pandemic passed through Ethiopia and Egypt before it wiped out two-thirds of the Greek city state of Athens in 430 BC. It caused their defeat in their ongoing war with the Spartans, and redirected the course of Western civilization.

Then there was the Antonine plague of 165 AD, when smallpox spread from the Huns to the Germans, who passed it to the Romans, whose troops returned from war and spread it throughout the Roman Empire, taking out even the Roman emperor, and changing the course of Roman — and world — history.

In 250 AD, a smallpox outbreak caused the flight of everyone in Carthage to the country, spreading it so far and wide that it lasted for three centuries. It recurred with a vengeance in 541 AD throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. A dark, irredeemable gloom hung over generations in every community from this one. A resulting, ever lingering, apocalyptic atmosphere led directly to a rapid spread of Christianity.

In the 11th Century, leprosy, which had been around for centuries, became the pandemic of the Middle Ages. A deforming ailment now known as Hansen’s disease, it still afflicts tens of thousands every year, and can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics.

Only two-thirds of the world’s population was left standing after the bubonic plague of 1350, spreading from Asia to Greenland, so incapacitating the Vikings as to end their exploration of North America. Then, starting in 1492, when Spain’s explorers began their venture into the Caribbean, and soon the rest of the New World, what they carried with them caused more than 53 million of the native populations to perish in a short span of years from smallpox, measles and bubonic plague.

The 1800s witnessed the first of no less than seven cholera pandemics over the next 150 years, even though a vaccine was created. There was a terrible measles pandemic in 1875 that started in Fiji.

One would think that the Russian flu pandemic of 1889 would have been an instructive experience for the future, but about three decades later, the world lost 50 million people to the similar, so called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. No effective drug or vaccine was created. In fact, as the editors of history.com tell it, that pandemic ended in 1919 only when most of those infected either developed immunities or died.

The Asian flu pandemic of 1957 started in Hong Kong, moving through all of China, then the U.S. and elsewhere. Amazingly, the world was largely unprepared for its second wave in 1958, but at least a vaccine was developed. This was able to contain a flu virus that killed 1.1 million worldwide in that year alone.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic of 1981 shook the world as well. No cure has been found, though treatments have been developed that slow its progress. Believed to have originated from a chimpanzee virus in the 1920s, it has so far claimed the lives of 35 million people.

According to the superbly documented book, “The Story of Disease & Mankind’s Continuing Struggle Against It” by Mary Dobson (2007), quarantines of populations first proved effective in the “severe acute respiratory syndrome” (SARS) pandemic of 2003. That started with bats in China, moving to cats and then to people, then to 26 countries. While it “only” infected 8,096 people, it still led to the deaths of 774.

In these past few months, COVID-19, after all these pandemics, has come crashing through a world that could not or would not see it coming. From a timeline publicized in several sources, Nov. 17, 2019 was the first reported case, occurring in China, but it went unrecognized. Then in December, there emerged the first hero in this war, Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist.

Out of concern about the occurrence of the virus among his patients, Dr. Li defied orders from the local, prickly bullies who help run the Chinese government. Against their secrecy laws, he sent safety information to other doctors whom he knew. This sent the whole Chinese communist hierarchy reeling.

They finally charged him with a crime, and ever so reluctantly reported the virus the next day officially to the World Health Organization. Dr. Li himself was afflicted with the virus and died — at least that’s how the Chinese dictatorship explains it.

In a Jan. 14 tweet, the World Health Organization announced that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It wasn’t until Jan. 30 that the WHO declared the epidemic a public health emergency. On March 11, with the virus having spread globally to more than 114 countries, the WHO declared the COVID-19 situation a pandemic.

Some nations, such as South Korea, have handled it better than most. Consider, however, how some of their methods worked. Their people have what amounts to a national tradition of facial recognition technology. Body temperatures have long been taken everywhere, even in restaurants and theaters, and any positive signs mean you are immediately identified and confined to your home, with the requirement, enforced by heavy fines, to download an app on your phone that tracks your movements. Submission to such discipline, however, saved many.

One Korean writer and philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, makes a compelling point: in a larger sense, do we continually pursue an outlook, and live by unwritten rules, that make us easy prey for pandemics? Maybe we suffer from an “excess of positivity” that cuts us off from “the full range of human experience.” In trying to save ourselves, and our children, from any pain or negativity, we disconnect ourselves from much of life’s meaning and depth. In a culture where everyone gets a trophy, every bump in the road is much more an ordeal. And more than ever, or so it seems, a pandemic is shattering.

Another writer, Laszlo Foldenyl, builds on this point, opining that abject fear sharpens our sense of the spiritual dimensions of life, simply by forcing us to feel our essential powerlessness. Yet, such experiences as terror and pain have been minimized and misunderstood in the modern world. We struggle that much more when a pandemic strikes, and when livelihoods suddenly evaporate.

Is this why we cling extra hard to any possible good news among the endlessly bad reports? And there is occasionally good news, such as the newly announced process to sanitize used facial masks. In one day, tens of thousands of a once scarce, vitally needed, protective item can be recycled each day starting this week.

Consider this observation from journalist John M. Crisp, of Texas, who writes for the Tribune News service: “In our good fortune, we may have lost touch with just how wrong the world can go. It’s easy to forget that most of human history has been characterized more by hunger, disease, privation, suffering and war than by our comparative comfort.”

When, and what, will we truly learn from these thousands of years of pandemics?

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg