Well, the Wuhan pandemic is already an epic disaster. What’s next? Well, the past hints at the future, and I suspect it will be a rough, slow ride.
This pandemic is certainly not unprecedented. Let’s consider one worldwide pandemic – bubonic plague killed about 50 million in the 14th century, a quarter to a half of Europe.
When Columbus discovered the New World, pandemics did, too. It’s historic fact that Eurodiseases pretty much swept both Americas clean of 90 percent of the native population upon first contact with carrying whites. For example, the Lewis and Clark journals refer to Indian villages along the Columbia full of the sick and dying, thanks to British traders visiting the mouth of the river.
America also had a “modern” pandemic. The global Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19 ran unchecked thanks to scientific ignorance. But it was also compounded by U.S. government officials unwilling to acknowledge how deadly the flu really was because it might harm the other “war effort” underway in Europe – kind of how the Chinese government minimized matters and let COVID-19 escape containment.
The website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains Spanish flu infected about one-third of the globe’s citizens, 500 million, with 50 million dying, an utter catastrophe on top of the slaughter during World War I. 675,000 Americans died out of 103 million of our total population, contributing to an actual decline in U.S. population for 1918.
Critically, America suffered three waves of Spanish flu. The first American wave manifested in soldiers at Camp Funston, Kansas in March 1918, one of 32 large boot camps training 4 million tightly packed, close-quartered U.S. soldiers, who in turn of course were packed tightly into troopships sent “over there” to be packed tightly into trenches along the Western Front. For the next six months (summer) flu reports were “sporadic” – but in September at another Army camp near Boston, the fire blew up. Roughly half the troops got sick and about 5 percent died.
Then, on Armistice Day, America had a big celebration, and everyone joined in. Our doughboys came home, to hugs and kisses after being packed in troopships again. The rest of the fall had northern cities stacking bodies, while in winter and early spring 1919, southern cities like New Orleans and San Francisco got slammed. Even President Woodrow Wilson is thought to have caught Spanish flu as the virus was “still rampant” in Paris as late as April of 1919, which in turn contributed to his eventual stroke and incapacitation (kept secret) starting in fall 1919.
Bottom line is, Spanish flu ravaged the world unchecked for at least a year and a half until it burned itself out. There was no vaccine. Science had no inkling that viruses even existed, there were no antibiotics yet, no ventilators, no nothing. The only options were, as CDC explains, “isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.” Little déjà vu there, eh?
My guess is, forget 15 days. Try fifteen MONTHS. This first isolation period gives us a chance to make masks, develop test kits, build respirators, and gather hard data on how the virus behaves, so we can improvise and adapt.
Hopefully, it has a “season” like the flu, which might allow researchers this summer to come up with some kind of defense, hopefully a vaccine, but if not, to find prophylactics that can shorten illness and infection, and keep people alive.
But right now, we’re stuck in 1918. The virus is incredibly infective, with “virus shedding” beginning two-to-six days after initial contact, but too many shedders don’t have any symptoms at all. Nor do we know for sure what kills the virus outside the body. Black light? Alcohol spray? What lurks in our laundry hampers? Can we microwave our N-95 and be good to go again? What happens once the infected (sick or not) recover? Are they then “nontoxic,” or more importantly, immune? We need to get these basics nailed down before fall, so we can improvise and adapt as we get back to business.