Living through history
When I was a kid I thought history was something we read about in text books. World wars were from a “less civilized” time, we are a modern people after all. With the fall of the USSR along with the start and end of the gulf war not too long after, I thought, perhaps foolishly, that history was a thing of the past. I never suggested I was the smartest of children. But here we are, living through history. I didn’t realize it could be so painful, then again maybe if I had paid more attention I would’ve known.
I love history, the Marine Corps really drilled in a lot of military history and since then I’ve been fascinated by it. For example, did you know the famous flag raising photo at Iwo Jima was staged? Okay, not exactly staged, they just did it a second time because the first time was done without photographers, because war and what not. I also know the story of Ira Hayes. A name we should be so lucky to know, not because he was one of six in that famous photo, which he was, but because of how he was treated afterwards. There’s a lot history can tell us about human behavior and behavior of the governments who oversee our lives.
The fun thing about history is that there’s so much of it. Mostly bad, some good, but more often than not it’s a cautionary tale. Juneteenth isn’t a exactly good thing, but here we are celebrating it while washing the meaning of it away. Or at least that’s what I’ve seen from most corporations. For those not in the know, Juneteenth was the day the government stepped in to free the slaves in Texas, roughly two years after they were supposed to be freed. We like to ignore the part where we let a whole ass state keep slaves for two years before doing anything about it and “celebrate” the “end” of slavery instead, it’s more fun that way I guess. Another fun example, ever wonder why Oklahoma has such a weird shape? That must be a hilarious story, right? No, it’s slavery. Seriously, look it up. You don’t have to take my word for it, google it. Isn’t history fun?
The point being of course that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, and well, here we are living through history. Between the dot com boom (and bust), the recession (depression really), two wars, the first major attack on US soil since pearl harbor (9/11 for those who don’t know what I’m talking about), H1N1 (ah, the pandemic light), and of course COVID, we’ve had our fair share of history already and that’s the truncated version from my one personal timeline of living. All of these things have historical counterparts that can help us understand what not to do or at the very least what worked and didn’t work at the time.
As we get back to “normal” whatever that is, COVID is killing us. It’s still very much a thing and we’ve selected the easier option. If we ignore it, it will go away. But it hasn’t gone away and it won’t go away. No virus is endemic and even if it was that doesn’t mean we get to pretend it doesn’t exist. We choose what spreadable diseases we can live with and which we have to get rid of. Polio could’ve been endemic if we let it, in fact it may be coming back thanks to anti-vaccination efforts. Not that we can’t learn anything from history there…. /sarcasm.
But whatever, we’ve never had a thing like COVID happen so we couldn’t possibly learn from history, could we? But the flu of 1918, often called the “spanish flu,” because racism (no really, look it up. The flu most likely started here in the US, but most things are the way they are because of racism or atomic war), is a good proxy for how to handle, or rather not handle a pandemic. While the strain of flu isn’t around anymore at the time there were very similar pushes that we have today. In fact, it’s scary identical.
Masks save lives by stopping the spread. We know this works, we’ve known this works since the realization of germ theory, and we’ve had to don masks in operating rooms ever since. Masks save lives and in 1918 there was a push to wear the damn mask. Of course, there was a similar counter push to not wear a mask, because if history has taught us anything it’s that people, in the general sense, are stupid. We all are, myself included, it’s okay to admit and learn from this. We’re all a bunch of dumb pseudo-ape cousins with dumb brains that make us do dumb things.
So in 1918 they had a mask and anti-mask fight, a bunch of history happened and the flu of 1918 is gone, hence the flu of 1918. It started in 1918 and ended in 1918 so nothing more we could learn from it, right? Wrong. The flu of 1918 lasted three years roughly and by the end of 1918 when the push to go “back to normal” happened they were in the… I want to say fourth? wave. Again, google is your friend here I’m just relaying from memory at this point and as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we’re all dumb.
Regardless of what wave they were on, cases of that particular flu strain was raging on killing people far beyond the average rate of death for the flu. Which to be perfectly clear, the flu doesn’t need to be a thing, we could eliminate the flu if we really wanted to. But the government and the general public for that matter, pressed on with its back to normal campaign. Sound familiar to anyone?
Now we could learn from this mistake and save lives, but being the dumb species we are, we’re doomed to repeat the past without so much as a glance in the history books to see if we’ve dealt with a problem like this before. The sad part is that the years after the 1918 flu was declared over were some of the most deadly. News papers (because that’s how people got news back then) stopped reporting basically all together while doctors and healthcare workers kept pushing for something, anything to help. But we the people were abandoned by the government and a small, but very vocal, minority of people who just couldn’t bother to take precautions.
Still not sounding familiar?
Eventually the flu mutated and became less virulent (meaning less harmful), but it’s still — for all intents and purposes — here with us today. However, each infection gives viruses a chance to become more virulent and before you ask, no, mutation doesn’t mean less virulent. Next, you may ask, what does a virus gain by killing a host? Viruses aren’t alive in the sense you and I are. It doesn’t care, whatever helps it spread, it will do. So long as it can spread, that’s enough for a virus. Which is to say that while there are very real parallels, COVID doesn’t have to end up the same way the flu did. It could, for example, become more virulent. In fact, I would argue we don’t want COVID to end up the same way the 1918 flu ended up, but fuck me for wanting a good outcome I guess.
A quick example, Omicron was touted to be less virulent. It’s “mild” is what people were saying, but by comparison Omicron has been the most deadly thus far, here’s just one, albeit local and not national, report on that (here). Yes, it could go either way, but you aren’t guaranteed a less virulent virus. In fact, the more chances it has to mutate, the more chances it has to find a mutation to let it evade the immune system. It isn’t a for sure thing, but that’s the problem with statistics. It’s a luck of the draw and the more times you draw (people get infected) the more chances you have for an outlier outcome (i.e. an immune system evading virus).
At the end of the day we have the chance to be smarter than COVID. We could eliminate COVID and frankly the flu and “common” cold if we wanted. We should do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Think of the lives we could save, the flu kills a lot of people, some of those people are children. Not that youth should make a person’s life more “valuable,” but that’s the society we live in. Where a person’s worth is judged by what they can do for the society (ie work or the potential to work). When the pandemic started I had hoped we would learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. Now I’m just hoping we do slightly better than the 1918 flu outcome.
Then again, I probably shouldn’t hold out hope. Historically this doesn’t end well.