Learned during the COVID-19 crisis: We should have known better.
Over many years, I have gradually become aware of the utter avoidability of some of the great worldwide disasters: the World Wars, oil spills and other environmental catastrophes, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Guns of August by historian Barbara Tuchman shows in excruciating detail how avoidable was the disaster than became World War I. Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm is a blow-by-blow recap of failures of England, France, the United States and others to end the rise of Hitler. Silent Spring helped get DDT banned, but we still struggle to produce and distribute organic food. And the influenza that killed 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in America in 1918-1920 pointed the way to everything we need to know about today’s pandemic, and yet we’re on our way to more 250,000 dead in the U.S., as many Americans as died in World War II.
Now, I agree that hindsight is 20-20 and all that. But it seems to me that sheer common sense and the application of accepted science should be able to help us here, if there is such a thing as progress. Why do we continue to avoid the lessons of history? Greed as a human habit about sums it up. What we label greed is our natural response to scarcity. There are never enough resources to go around, and who knows but that we may be left out or come up short some day. I can reduce every historical tragedy I can think of to the fundamental reality that greed, whether for money or power, corrodes common sense and blinds our leaders. What if there were actually more than enough for everyone; what if we were actually all in this together?
A silver lining in the current crisis has been reading The Great Influenza: the Story of the Greatest Pandemic in History by John Barry. Originally published in 2004 and including Afterword updates from as recently as 2018, the book informs and educates on the histories of the 1918 influenza, the development of medical research from the late 19th through the middle 20th centuries, and virus science—what viruses are, how they behave, how the body responds to them, and how they become harmless or nearly so over time, although the point is made that viruses, including COVID-19, never go away completely. There is no cure for a virus. There are only vaccines, the gradual weakening of the impact of viruses due to mutation, “herd immunity” and other factors, and preventive behaviors such as masks and staying away from virus air droplets that mitigate the infection rate.
COVID-19 is our disaster du jour. What’s next?