Opinion: Was covid just a warning?

During the past 18 months, we’ve had to learn to change the way that we live our lives. We wore face masks, washed our hands much more frequently, limited the number of times that we left our homes. Some of us learned to attend meetings via teleconferences; some found that they could work from home. Millions of Americans cancelled their plans to visit Europe or most other places that were not easily reachable via the family auto. School was something that students attended in their pajamas at home.


We shopped online. Many stores closed, and some did not reopen. Four- and five-star restaurants served their food in Styrofoam boxes delivered to cars in their parking lots. “Drive-through” became the new normal at banks and pharmacies. Dental procedures were postponed, as were elective surgeries. We stopped shaking hands when introduced or when meeting old friends, and we learned to stay six feet away from everyone who was not part of our immediate family.


Broadway shut down, as did community theater in smaller cities throughout the country. New movies were not released to theaters; a few went directly to television, more than likely to the premium channels. We could not visit museums, galleries, or libraries. “Popular culture” was not very popular.


Ostrich response


All of the above changes in our lifestyle were brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The question that we must deal with is: Was COVID-19 just a warning of the life that looms ahead? Scientists say that it was. But, as in the past, most people handle these findings with the ostrich response. That is, they stick their heads in a metaphorical hole in the ground and hope that the threat will go away. (Incidentally, real ostriches don’t do that; they run.)


Today, we are facing challenges that were predicted decades ago. We had warnings that pandemics were inevitable. And this fact has not been hidden from the public. One need not have had a class in European history to know that there was something called the Black Plague that ravaged Europe, northern Africa, and EurAsia in the 14th century.


However, one probably had to do some reading to learn that the bubonic plague that was most devastating between 1346 and 1353 reoccurred over and over for decades, even for the ensuing centuries. There is evidence that it was present in Islamic Africa until the mid-19th century and in the Horn of Africa as well as Australia in the 20th century.


Bacterial v. viral pandemics


The bubonic plague that may have killed 200,000,000 people or more was spread by a bacteria carried by fleas that rode around the world on the backs of black rats. Throughout history, rats have been world travelers, hitching rides on caravans and ships.


Scientists learned to control some of the bacteria by making cleanliness part of the cultural ethos and through the use of antibiotic therapies. But viruses do not respond to antibiotics, and that is why vaccination is vitally important.


The devastating effects of viral infections became known to the general public a little more than 100 years ago with the spread of the “Spanish” flu. Influenza A/H1N1 (a variation of “bird flu”) affected about one-third of the world’s population and killed an estimated 21.6 million people between 1918 and 1920.


Modern viral pandemics


In 1957, there was another outbreak of “bird flu,” this time a slight mutation to A/H2N2. In 1968 there we saw a variation (A/H3N2) which was called Asian or Hong Kong Flu, but it was actually just another form of bird flu.


In 2002, we experienced severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that originated with bats and palm civets (long-bodied, short-legged cats). In 2009, we were hit with Swine flu (originating with pigs) and medically designated Influenza A/H1N1 (probably a variation of bird flu). In 2015, bats and dromedary camels were the source of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). And then, in 2019, the big one hit, COVID-19. As of July 26, 2021, the U.S. alone has attributed 602,772 deaths to this virus. And we are now experiencing a new surge among people who have not been vaccinated.


The future


People long to return to “normal.” And it is the rush to do so that may have contributed to the current surge in new cases. It is clear that most new cases are among people who have not been vaccinated, but there is a less-known stimulant to the surge, and that is vaccinated people who do not get sick or morbidly sick but may carry the virus and spread it.


Cape Code, Massachusetts, a favorite summer vacation spot for affluent Americans, has a vaccination rate approaching 100 percent. But it now has the highest rate of new COVID cases in the state. The cause may be the huge number of vacationers who are not vaccinated. This exposure may cause year-round, vaccinated residents to test positive although they have no or very mild symptoms because they have been vaccinated.


The lesson is that abandoning the cautions that we’ve adopted over the past year and a half too soon encourages those who have not been vaccinated to act even more recklessly. As we can see from the data above (Modern Viral Pandemics), viruses are mutating and producing new strains more quickly than in the past. And, the more that viruses circulate, the better the chance that they will adapt to new conditions and mutate.


The future “normal” may not be the old “normal.” You may have noticed in last week’s Wednesday edition of the Tribune that former city council member Derek Robinson is working to provide free showers for homeless people. To avoid the possible resurgence of bacterial infections, we may have to rededicate ourselves to cleanliness and take other measures to protect our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves from the next pandemic.


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Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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