“Above, two men trying to get others to join them in wearing face-masks in flu-ridden Paris in 1919. – PHOTOGRAPH BY TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES”
by Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
“Historically, pandemics can’t be shaken off in a season. The 1918 influenza, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, lasted until 1920, and deaths peaked in some U.S. cities long after the leading edge of the virus hit.
Also historically, people have grown impatient of restrictions intended to slow the spread of deadly viruses. (Above, two men trying to get others to join them in wearing face-masks in flu-ridden Paris in 1919.)
In that sense, today’s fluctuating attempts to fight COVID-19 are nothing new. But researchers studying the coronavirus say it is not a second wave that is striking nearly two dozen states these days with rising infections—but more of a continuation of a long first wave of a startlingly infectious enemy. Stubbornly rising cases in North Carolina and Arizona alarm them; particularly as participation in face-mask wearing and social distancing wanes in some places. But researchers also understand that the highly decentralized U.S. approach means some states simply will be more aggressive than others at trying to limit infections and deaths.
“’As we go through this next six, nine, 12, 15 months of this, how do we keep putting energy into COVID when people are just so tired of it?‘ says Alexis Madrigal, who tracks coronavirus data with the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.
Restrictions always have been tough to follow. In the 1660s, as London succumbed to the bubonic plague, people flouted quarantines and social distancing, meeting at businesses and holding big daytime funerals, noted diarist Samuel Pepys with frustration. One night Pepys, lonely and standing before a window outside a bar, stared longingly at the jolly, sociable people inside. Reluctantly, he turned away, deciding he didn’t want to die for a drink.
“Throughout human and literary history what makes pandemics alike is not mere commonality of germs and viruses but that our initial responses were always the same,” writes Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, completing a novel set around a 1901 pandemic. ‘The initial response to the outbreak of a pandemic has always been denial. National and local governments have always been late to respond and have distorted facts and manipulated figures to deny the existence of the outbreak.’
Given all that we know about the coronavirus—and don’t know—what should a person do?
Maybe we should follow the epidemiologists, the people who understand the most about deadly diseases. Most of 511 epidemiologists interviewed by the New York Times expect to be wearing face-masks outside for at least another year, and nearly two thirds of them say they won’t attend concerts, sporting events, or religious services during that time.
Some of these specialists sound like Pepys, dying to laugh and joke inside a bar again.
“’The worst casualty of the epidemic,’ McGill University’s Eduardo Franco told the Times, is the ‘loss of human contact.’
“’If we have a good vaccine,’ added Indiana University’s Christina Ludema, ‘perhaps the first thing I’d do is more hugs.’’
SOURCE: National Geographic e-letter