In 1854, London was ravaged by an epidemic of cholera, a nasty, highly infectious bacterial disease transmitted via feces-corrupted public water supplies that killed its victims with an endless assault of diarrhea and vomiting.
While some scientists at the time believed cholera infected via air, English physician John Snow didn’t buy it. His investigations proved otherwise:
“Through carefully mapping the outbreak, [Snow] finds that everyone affected has a single connection in common: they have all retrieved water from the local Broad Street pump,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control explained in a history of the organization, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.
When Snow ordered community water pumps closed and water dispensed from other sources, the epidemic quickly receded.
The success of the pioneering physician’s scientific, evidenced-based approach in trying to understand the epidemic’s reality led to the epidemiological investigations that are now standard for modern disease outbreaks, the Post reported.
Before science was able to peek behind nature’s curtain to comprehend the actual causes of disease, the default was generally to blame epidemics on God’s divine punishment on humankind for grievous sins. And it’s not all old news: the Christian Right still tends to bring God into the equation of disease, often linking the divine’s supposed displeasure with social behavior fundamentalist Christians particularly don’t like (e.g., homosexuality and abortion). As you may recall, it wasn’t the amoral, opportunistic AIDS virus that emerged in 1981 and decimated tens of millions of human beings worldwide over the next decades, it was allegedly gay sex practices.
And God is still unabashedly inserted by faithful leaders in epidemics today in America, such as for the current coronavirus pandemic. Just this week, Kristi Noem, the governor of my state, South Dakota, issued a proclamation calling for a day of prayer to supposedly help defeat the virus that is sweeping the United States. Six in the state have already died from it as of today, which is terrible, but it pales in comparison to the many thousands who have already perished from it in New York alone, many hundreds each day.
In some places, the upward curve of new infections seems to be “flattening,” indicating the disease’s peak may be in sight. But reaching that plateau, and assuring it begins to steadily move downward will be the result of, not prayer, but continuing “social distancing” by Americans, testing to locate viral hot spots, and treatment by medical professionals in clinics, hospitals and emergency medical facilities being set up in major urban areas hardest hit. In other words, the healing fruits of science.
While people everywhere now deal with this modern pestilence, which so far has killed fewer than 70,000 people, its encouraging to remember — although not for those who have lost loved ones to this disease — that its hugely mild compared to previous scourges of disease in history.
For example, as the Post article explains, the infamous “Black Death,” a broad series of bubonic plague outbreaks in Europe in the Middle Ages (1347-1352), killed from 75-200 million people, roughly as much as a third of Europe’s population at the time. To give an idea of the magnitude, that would be about 60 percent of America’s current population.That plague was also not a divine punishment. It was found to be caused by the bites of infected fleas that had been infected by their host rats in crowded, unsanitary urban neighborhoods populated by the poor. In the end, though, rich and poor alike were felled by it.
Then, as now, the reach and devastation wrought by disease is greatly magnified by current technology. For us now that means ships, planes, trains and automobiles, which can quickly transport people vast distances worldwide. The modern miracle of travel technology is the turbo-charger of infectious disease. Remember that what made the 1918 Spanish Flu so devastatingly widespread was its new ability to be a hidden stowaway on ships ferrying infected and furloughed soldiers from World War I battlegrounds to each and every of their home countries. In the Middle Ages, it was trade ships (carrying rats and fleas) that picked up and dropped off cargo in foreign ports.
When the flu’s surging ripples of desolation faded away a couple of years later, some 50 million dead lay in its wake.
History’s deadliest other plagues include:
- Antonine Plague (165-180 AD): An epidemic of measles and smallpox in the Roman Empire, 5 million dead. Some historians link it directly to the empire’s final implosion in the 5th
- Plague of Justinian (541-542): A bacterial epidemic spread by rats and fleas in the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople, 30-50 million dead. People at the epicenter of the disease at the time believed that a good angel and a bad one flew above cities, and when a bad angel stuck his spear in a house door, everyone inside would die (see this classical painting depicting this superstition, here.)
- New World Smallpox (starting in 1520): Caused by a variola virus, the plague killed 25-55 million people (up to 90 percent of each tribal group affected), mostly Native Americans who had no immune resistance to the virus brought by European colonists to the new land.
So, as we continue top struggle against the latest global plague, we would do well to remind ourselves it could be worse, previous plagues were far, far worse, and it’s not a divine punishment.
In other words, it’s not the worst disease to strike humankind, and we are far from powerless to stop it.
In fact, as the experts tell us over and over, the golden bullet is simple: Stay at home as much as humanly possible.
And pray if you like but know that it almost certainly won’t make any difference in what the coronavirus does or who it infects. Because it’s real.
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