The world has suffered through other deadly pandemics. But the response to coronavirus is unprecedented.
The flu pandemic of 1918-19, which killed 50 million people worldwide and nearly 700,000 Americans, is the historic event most closely associated with the coronavirus, scholars say. In Philadelphia, 20,000 died.
Spring arrived muted and virtually overlooked last week, drained of much of the hope and buoyancy normally associated with winter’s end.
What we face next, according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, is a “coronavirus winter,” ruled by the menace of molecules coiled deep in a rampaging virus.
This coming season has no known end, no equinox or solstice to mark its conclusion as it stretches ragged and bleak into an unknown future.
Meanwhile, we’re ordered to settle like cats in cages, without rent money, or baseball, or the chance to check on Grandpa.
Was there ever a moment like this?
“At no time in the history of America,” said David Elesh, emeritus professor of sociology at Temple University, “have people been asked to shut down their normal day-to-day lives and convert them as radically as we are being asked.
"In the short term, we’re probably being asked to do more as Americans than ever before.”
A pandemic not unprecedented
All this requires some perspective.
First of all, the spread of virus is nothing new, scholars stress.
“Epidemics have ravaged the globe to a far greater extent than we’re seeing now,” said Matt Ray, a Temple medical sociologist and an expert on pandemics. He added that HIV/AIDS, in fact, has continued to be a slow-moving plague for the last 40 years, thus far taking 32 million lives, according to the World Health Organization.
In ancient times, the Plague of Justinian, identified as the bubonic plague, flew throughout Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Arabia, killing an estimated 30 million to 50 million people — believed to be half the world’s population — in A.D. 541. The Black Death, also a bubonic plague, killed around 25 million Europeans between 1348 and 1350.
In 1793, yellow fever wiped out 5,000 of 50,000 citizens of Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, forcing President George Washington to decamp to Germantown, according to Morris Vogel, professor emeritus of history at Temple and an expert on the history of medicine and public health.
Nursing was considered man’s work back then, and as women and children were sent away, wealthy men like Philadelphia banker Stephen Girard stepped up to care for the sick, according to Pat D’Antonio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and an expert in the history of the profession.
Meanwhile, smallpox, cholera, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and other catastrophic illnesses upended life at different intervals throughout the years.
Flu of 1918
In 1918 came the so-called Spanish flu, named not because it started in Spain, but because nations during that year, which coincided with World War I, were observing a news blackout and not reporting major stories like battles and pandemics. Because Spain never honored the blackout, its newspapers wrote about the flu, and the country’s name became forever affixed to the malady, D’Antonio said.
Troops from around the world transmitted the disease wherever they went, with American soldiers eventually bringing it home.
It is that pandemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide and nearly 700,000 Americans, that scholars say is the historic event most closely associated with the coronavirus. In Philadelphia, 20,000 died, many of them felled from illness generated by close contact during a Broad Street parade in September honoring the military.
“That means this virus today is not unprecedented,” D’Antonio said. “It’s a 100-year event. The last time we had a pandemic like this was that 1918-1919 flu.”
During that time in Philadelphia and elsewhere, people flocked to churches to pray for the scourge’s end. “And that became part of the problem of spread,” Vogel said. It was a consequence of not knowing enough about the nature of disease a century ago, D’Antonio said.
With the coronavirus today, Wray said, “I don’t think we’ll see the same body count as we did with the 1918 flu,” partly because of social distancing. But, he added, there is a “shocking difference” that worries him:
“This pandemic is taking its toll in just a matter of months. From Wuhan [China, where the virus was first reported], to Iran, to Milan almost immediately. In the mid-20th Century, it would have taken a lot longer.”
But jets and global businesses have knitted the world together as never before. A bat can bite an animal that a Wuhan person eats, as some epidemiologists have surmised, and too soon, Americans start to die.
Wray concluded: “The speed with which it’s moved from outbreak to epidemic to global pandemic might be unprecedented.”
With the coronavirus taking up so much room in our lives so suddenly, it may be easy to forget that Americans historically have made sacrifices when calamities befell them.
During the American Revolution, when men were pressed into battle against an elite foe, women rearranged their days to sew soldiers’ uniforms; in the Civil War, which generated nearly 500,000 deaths, people’s houses were taken over to serve as hospitals, said Lindsay Drane Amaral, a historian at the University of Houston.
During World War II, when we lost around 405,000 military men, Americans bought bonds, rationed food, turned out the lights at night to avoid becoming bombing targets.
As the war progressed, Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of American resolve — a no-nonsense woman rolling up her sleeves to reveal the muscle and grit required to build bombers and bombs. The image stirred citizens to action.
The common denominator, from 1776 to Pearl Harbor, Amaral said, was that people were asked to do things, and they complied, finding direct and immediate ways to help.
“But it’s not so tangible now," Amaral continued. "Asking people to stay at home because they may or may not have a virus that may or may not spread to a stranger is intangible, and may be hard to take seriously for some.”
After 9/11, when Americans suffered the “outside shock of terrorism," a stunned populace stoked by nationalism felt the need to get involved, said Jared Bernstein, economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
“So President Bush told us to take our money and go to Disney World” to aid the economy.
It didn’t seem like a big ask then. But today, Bernstein said, "even that doesn’t work for us, leaving us a tougher problem to solve.” Today, to do our part, we’re told to stay in the house and play Jenga with the kids.
‘Fragility and mortality’
Unlike any time in memory, we must change the basic way we interact with one another, “depriving some of us of crucial income, and limiting ways to get the economy moving,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington nonprofit of aligned national organizations that help low-income Americans.
We cannot rally in the public square, or decompress at the movies, or play volleyball in the park. We must isolate, which is against Americans’ gregarious nature, and our own Constitution, which guarantees the right to peaceably assemble.
We must regard others in the frozen-food aisle with suspicion. Neighbors who fed your cat while you were on vacation are now to be avoided.
“We are starkly facing our fragility and mortality,” said Cristina Bicchieri, a professor of philosophy and psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and an expert on social norms.
During our wars, our enemies were 3,000 miles away. Today, Bicchieri said, the foe is fighting us on our own soil. “And that is a much different experience.”
From the standpoint of evolution, this pandemic will be seen as “just a blip” in the totality of human experience, Bicchieri added. “But for us as we live it, it’s huge.”
She stressed that some good can be derived from hard times: "We are spending more time with family, and we can rediscover the important things that made us families in the first place.
“In the end, that can bring positive feelings we take with us as we learn to survive this unusual moment."