A lesson from past pandemics

Saturday, September 26, 2020 - 9:48am

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

Last week, in one of my history classes, Sickness and Health Since 1492, I was assigned the reading “The Cholera Years” by Charles E. Rosenberg. The book is a dense, nearly 300-page account of the United States cholera epidemics of the 1800s; the syllabus had us reading all but one chapter. I flipped through the pages of endless paragraphs and resigned myself to a Saturday unfortunately spent.

Then I started reading the book. Within the first 30 pages, I found myself unexpectedly sucked in by Rosenberg’s description of a cholera-stricken New York. “By the end of the first week in July (in 1832),” Rosenberg writes, a few days after the city’s first cholera cases were confirmed, “almost everyone who could afford to had left the city. Farm houses and country homes within a thirty-mile radius were completely filled ... Visitors to the city were struck by the deathly silence of the streets, unaccustomedly clean.” I read this paragraph, then read it again. I felt as though I was reading an account of New York during the COVID-19 outbreak. Vividly, I was reminded of the photos that had circulated the internet in the early days of COVID-19 in March 2020, images of a Times Square gone quiet and empty of tourists

The similarities didn’t stop there. Throughout the rest of his book, Rosenberg proceeded to outline the terror New Yorkers faced with cholera, their new obsession with cleanliness and how cholera disproportionately affected poor populations. His descriptions felt strangely prescient to me, the commentary almost uncomfortably familiar. For all our differences and scientific evolutions, the cholera outbreak in the 1830s had many outwardly similar social effects to the pandemic we face today.

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When I decided to declare a Minor in Science, Technology and Society with a concentration in medicine, I didn’t think it would ever be particularly useful for me. It was an interesting field of study, I thought, and offered an excuse to take classes across a range of disciplines; that was enough to convince me to sign up. As a Philosophy major, I’d already thrown practicality to the window. What’s five more indulgent humanities courses before I graduate?

When COVID-19 hit, I was taking one of those indulgent classes: AIDS and Other Health Crises. It didn’t take long for me to realize, after I returned home, that my education had already uniquely prepared me to understand and discuss COVID-19. Not to say I was an expert, only that I alone among my family had previously learned about the concepts that news anchors were now discussing on TV, and so I was most easily able to explain them. I talked my dad through “flattening the curve” and explained to my mom the difference between quarantine and isolation. I told my sister about the basics of making flu vaccines. 

It felt like a stroke of luck, then, that I had chosen the minor I did. Even if everything else was going wrong, I thought, at least I was getting some use out of my education.

It’s only over the past few weeks that I’ve realized just how valuable my education really is. 

I’m taking the bulk of the classes for my minor this semester, and the more I read about the history of medicine, the more I realize that everything we’re experiencing now, as both individuals and as a society, has been experienced by others before. In other words, we are not alone in history. 

It’s a notion I find incredibly comforting, even if it’s one not necessarily often spoken about. We usually prefer to frame the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of novelty — just think about how often you’ve heard the term “unprecedented” in the last six months. And in some ways, COVID-19 definitely is unprecedented: It’s a “novel” virus and the first serious global pandemic in decades. Still, novelty, for me, has become exhausting. 

As French philosopher Albert Camus writes in his novel “The Plague,” which chronicles a breakout of bubonic plague in an Algerian city, “Considering the abnormal conditions (the townsfolk) were up against, the very word ‘novelty’ had lost all its meaning.”

When I read this sentence last weekend as part of my weekly school readings, it hit me unexpectedly hard. I’m tired of being told what a unique position we’re in as a society. I’m tired of being told how crazy this all is. It’s not comforting anymore, if it ever was. I want things to be normal again. I want to not be afraid that these “unprecedented” times are going to turn out to be the apocalypse — because, as the world continues to crumble around us, it feels more and more likely that that’s exactly where we’re headed. 

In one of my classes last week, as we were waiting for the last few students to join the Zoom call, my professor started talking about COVID-19 and the so-called “college experience.” 

“People worry right now that they’re not getting their college experience,” he said, “But this is the most real college experience you could possibly have.”

The last student joined the Zoom, then, and my professor moved on to discussing our readings, so I never got to hear his explanation for exactly what he meant by that. But I’ve been thinking about it for the past few days, and though I still don't know precisely what he was getting at, I have my own interpretation of what he meant.

The college experience, as it’s sold to us, is largely artificial. It’s consumptive, revolving around frat parties and football games, expensive dorm rooms and late-night study sessions. But that’s just one depiction of the college experience. There’s another side of things which is perhaps less openly discussed, but which I believe is much more fundamental to one’s college years: the experience of becoming an adult.

Growing up is weird. It’s weird the first time you have to pay your own utility bills. It’s weird the first time you realize how expensive nice toilet paper is. It’s weird the first time you compare savings accounts to see which will get you a higher yield on your investment. And it’s weird the first time you face a national or global crisis. There’s something for every generation. For millennials, it was 9/11 and the Great Recession; for us, it’s COVID-19. I wish it wasn’t. I wish this wasn’t happening, that people across the world weren’t dying from a disease that good leadership and social distancing should be able to limit, if not prevent. But this is happening, and people are dying, and we have to face the gravity of that.

It doesn’t matter how many people, historically or today, have experienced pandemics before: This pandemic is still painful. We can’t change or ignore that, and we shouldn’t try to. But at a time when the world feels uniquely unstable, it can also be reassuring to know that everything we’re experiencing, as individuals and a society, has been experienced by others before. Two hundred years before I was born, people were feeling and experiencing the same things I am right now, in a place not too far from here. Societies changed, cities slowed, friends and families were separated. And yet, eventually, they came back together again. The world survived. 

Knowing that doesn’t soften the tragedy we’re currently experiencing, but it does reassure me that, whatever this is, it probably isn’t the apocalypse.


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