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How will this pandemic shape the future? 2 min read

How will this pandemic shape the future?

Pandemics have shaped the course of human history, perhaps just as much as the humans themselves.

By Cary Littlejohn

I wrote briefly yesterday about the swirl and rush of life during the  coronavirus, and how it behooves us to slow down and accept that we’re in a fundamentally different moment than perhaps those we remember most recently, like the Great Recession or 9/11.

However true that simple statement is, what complicates our thinking around and acceptance of the coronavirus are its twin powers of reversion and reduction. It’s reduced us, collectively as a nation, to the time of the  burgeoning AIDS crisis. It’s reduced us to World War II, where we’re looking collectively at a national threat, fearing for our loved ones in our homes and strangers serving on the front lines. Reverted us back to dire economic realities for so many workers, perhaps unknown to us since the Great Depression, with 10 million people losing their jobs in just two weeks’ time. Reduced us to Flu Pandemic of 1918, as we hope to keep that outbreak as the deadliest pandemic in recent history.

That history takes us back only 100 years, and if you read Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest in The New Yorker, you’ll see this virus has the ability to revert and reduce us to much more primitive times than 1918. With the clarity of historical hindsight, it’s easy to see how pandemics have shaped humanity, and the message of Kolbert’s piece is clear: This novel coronavirus is one of those humanity-shifting events.

The piece reaches back some thousands of years, and it recounts various miniature histories, each scary on its own but results and numbers, at first glance, seem more expected due to the primitive nature of societies at the time. But one can’t read the details for very long before attention wanders to our current crisis, and upon reflection, we don’t seem so advanced for all our technological and medical advances. It puts the reader in a kind of uncomfortable limbo, where the subject matter is a retrospective of past pandemics, but the purpose of the piece is the knowledge that one day, perhaps sooner than we realize or want, we’ll be looking back at this time in the same vein. It’s speeding us into the future, while tethering us to the past. One vestige of the past is kept alive and well today by its constant use in our daily vocabulary now: quarantine. According to the article, the word stems from the Italian word “quaranta” which means “forty.” It’s always been an inherently scientific word to me, conjuring notions of sterility and exactitude one might associate with scientific labs, bright lights, lots of white and streak-free glass. I was rocketed back in time when I learned from the article that early practices of quarantine that lasted for 40 days were acts of faith, relying on the Old and New Testaments’ frequent invocations of the number: 40 days of the Great Flood and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and 40 days of Lent. The word felt immediately less scientific and sterile, but it’s such a perfect encapsulation of the move from pure ignorance to belief to knowledge with scientific certainty.

Kolbert writes:

Whenever disaster strikes, like right about now, it’s tempting to look to the past for guidance on what to do or, alternatively, what not to do. It has been almost fifteen hundred years since the Justinianic plague, and, what with plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza, polio, measles, malaria, and typhus, there are an epidemic number of epidemics to reflect on.

And so she does, and you should, too:

Pandemics and the Shape of Human History | The New Yorker

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