Being over the age of 100 it seems likely that I am one of few active bloggers who has been alive during both the so-called Spanish Flu and the current coronavirus one. So permit me to offer some perspective.
In spite of too many misfits of individuals, politicians, and businesses who seek profits from the hardships of others, we can be very proud of our Homo sapiens species, one of 1.3 million known and an estimated 8.3 million yet to be found and described, that have evolved on this tiny speck of matter, called a planet and hidden among trillions of galaxies created apparently out of nothing some 4.5 billion years ago with Life arriving 4.3 billion years ago and our species 200,000 years ago. We were not capable of leaving a written record until 5,400 years ago. Bones and artifacts are used to take us back much further, perhaps 40,000 years. We have evolved a consciousness that urges us to find, or create, a purpose. A consciousness that can remember and learn from past experiences.
All species live briefly on this planet where they both co-operate with and prey on other species. For survival, and for pleasure, our species has dominated the plant and animal kingdoms. It is only 400 years with the invention of the microscope that we began to understand both our beneficial and fatal interactions with the immense invisible world.
Today we are grateful to millions of humans who are risking, with thousands sacrificing, their lives to help others while we endure and try to limit the worldwide assault of the coronavirus that has evolved and multiplied rapidly to invade and confuse our immune systems with weapons so new that it may take us a year or more to develop a vaccine. This implies an intelligence at a basic level so we are in a total war that could dwarf previous pandemics that we do need to review for guidance.
I was born in Canada in November 1919 during the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu Pandemic that claimed 55,000 Canadian lives out of a population of 8.5 million. Estimates of the world toll range from 20 to 50 million deaths out of 500 million cases. It is not known where it started but it was not in Spain. It became a deadlier-than-war force late in the Great War of 1914-1918. Our censors downplayed the numerous deaths among Allied troops so neutral Spain with a free press was blamed. It was called La Gripe. Some blamed a new chemical weapon, invented and used by our enemies. Returning soldiers brought the lingering disease to North America. I grew up among two uncles wounded in the trenches and scores of veterans with numerous ailments. For months my parents scrubbed floors, walls, and furniture to protect me.
Pandemics and humans have co-existed for all of recorded history. Wikipedia describes 232. A sample:
430 BC: The Plague of Athens: It entered Athens through its port city of Piraeus during the Peloponnesian War, killing up to 100,000 people, resulting in a large-scale breakdown of law and order and religious beliefs. Greeks had flooded into Athens causing over crowding that increased disease prompting the attacking superior Spartan army to retire. Thucydides caught but survived the plague. Pericles used his superior navy to save Athens, allowing it to recover in 15 years.
165-188 AD The Antonine Plague (Plague of Galen) killed up to 10 million. It broke out during the Roman siege of Seleucia, spreading throughout Gaul then to the legions along the Rhine. It could have been smallpox or measles. A similar plague erupted in eastern China.
249-262 AD: The Plague of Cyprian, named for the Christian bishop of Carthage: It killed a million people, and is thought to have been smallpox. It caused severe food shortages, greatly weakening the Roman Empire.
541-542 AD: The Plague of Justinian: Killed 45% of the European and West Asian population. It hit the Byzantine Empire especially Constantinople.
735-737 AD: Japanese Smallpox Epidemic killed one third of the Japanese population.
1346-51; The Black Death (Great Bubonic Plague, or Pestilence) killed up to 200 million humans in Eurasia. It entered Europe when Mongols catapulted infected bodies over the walls of Kaffa, Crimea (Caffa) in 1346 An Italian force killed 15,000 Tatars in retaking Caffa. Merchant ships brought the plague to all of Europe carried by fleas on rats. It also spread to China and India.
1519-1580 saw 3 Mexican epidemics of smallpox and salmonella due to the Spanish occupation with its slave-like treatment of the natives, aggravated by periods of severe drought, killed up to 25 million.
In the 1600s the 13 British colonies in America endured plagues including, bubonic, smallpox, typhus, and measles with death tolls up to 90% of local populations. Plagues also hit England, the Netherlands, Malta, Austria, Vienna, Spain, Naples, China, and France.
1720-22 Great Plague of Marseille, France, the last major attack of the Bubonic Plague in Western Europe killed 100,000 humans. It took Marseille only two years to recover mainly because it had learned from the Plague of 1580 and built the infrastructure to combat plagues.
2013-2016 Ebola: In 21 months Ebola took 28,646 lives in 10 countries, 6 of them in western Africa.
The rapid speed and range of returning plagues is quite impressive. In 2019-2020 the dengue fever erupted to invade Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos,and Latin America, carried by multiplying mosquitoes using discarded plastic containers as breeding grounds. There is a vaccine so only 2,500 deaths were reported.
Viruses kill 15 million humans a year – twice as many as cancer. If a person’s immune system does not immediately attack an invading pathogen it takes 4-9 days for the system to start working on antibodies.
It is a war that demands constant scientific vigilance and the maintenance of world forces with a common purpose that can be quickly mobilized. Could we use it to also lessen frictions among nations?
Ye Olde Scribe