Georgiann Potts

Writer’s Note: And just like that, the whole world changed. This “new normal” is one that doesn’t feel “normal” at all. Being asked to stay at home, gather only in very small groups, and to use “social distance” to separate ourselves physically ... That doesn’t resemble any “normal” that I’ve ever known.

President Trump says we are at war. Although critics criticize him for saying that, I believe he is right. These are historic times and each of us is playing a part in making that history.

The world is experiencing wartime realities. No, people aren’t being shot at or bombed, but nearly every country is being invaded. The invader is invisible, relentless. Worldwide, people are taking extraordinary steps to protect themselves and others.

As many of you will guess, my response to this nightmare is to do research. I’m not a medical professional; heck, I’m not even a particularly good patient! But I am curious, and I’ll bet you are, too.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ...” British novelist Charles Dickens opened his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with these words. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is set in Paris and London (the “two cities” referred to in the title) during the chaos of the French Revolution. Dickens was masterful at capturing the fear and chaos that reigned then.

I thought of those opening lines several days ago as the number of cases rose and the stock market fell. Ironically, only a few weeks earlier we were experiencing the “best of times” — the stock market hit historically high marks, the economy was growing, and unemployment rates were among the lowest ever recorded. There was a growing sense of optimism. Then COVID-19 changed everything.

Epidemic

or Pandemic? . . .

On March 11th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 Pandemic. Public perception changed overnight. Many who had insisted that this was a “scam” or “manufactured” crisis started taking another look.

There arose so many conflicting reports that it has been difficult to separate “fact” from “educated guess”. Even the terms “epidemic” and “pandemic” have changed at times. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an epidemic “ . . . refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected” in a given population. The CDC describes a pandemic as “. . . an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

Pandemics are ‘Old News’ . . .

Scientists believe that infectious diseases have always existed, but as man became more “civilized” (establishing trade routes, building cities, becoming more social in his interactions), he unwittingly helped diseases to thrive.

Historical records show the earliest recorded pandemic, 430 B.C. Athens Pandemic (Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Athens) killed 2/3s of that population. Historians theorize that the Spartans’ defeat of the Athenians was caused in part because of the Athenian population having been severely harmed by this pandemic.

Other early recorded pandemics include the 165 A.D. (Antonine Plague) — perhaps the earliest appearance of smallpox or measles that killed 5 million and was spread by Roman soldiers; the 250 A.D. (Cyprian Plague); and the 541-542 A.D. (Justinian Plague) — believed to be the first record of the bubonic plague that in 200 years killed 26% of the world’s population. In the 11th century, a leprosy pandemic hit Europe. From 1346 to 1353, an estimated 75 million-200 million died from what was believed to be the second appearance of the bubonic plague.

Diseases that explorers brought when they discovered the “New World” also caused death. When Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola, the native population was approximately 60,000. That number had fallen to fewer than 500 after 50 years.

1918

Flu Pandemic . . .

When people are asked about pandemics, most think of the 1918 flu that raged from 1918-1920. Estimates are that it infected over 1/3 of the world’s population, killing 50 million - 100 million of the 500 million who got sick. There were earlier flu outbreaks, but research indicates that those were fatal primarily to the elderly and the very young. The 1918 flu did not discriminate.

While everyone’s focus is on COVID-19 at the moment, some of the elderly are remembering things stored away long ago and thought forgotten. For example, Jim’s memories of his father’s stories about the 1918 Flu Pandemic have recently resurfaced. He, even decades later, shudders when he remembers his father telling of seeing corpses lining the streets of their hometown. His dad said that people were dying in such large numbers that those responsible for them were overwhelmed and couldn’t keep up.

Also returning are Jim’s first-hand memories of the polio epidemic that raged during the 1930-40’s. As a boy, he remembers that all of his friends were “quarantined” inside their own yards. Ever resourceful, they devised a way to communicate. Jim’s closest friends lived about a half block away and across the street. They owned a registered Boston Bull Terrier named “Butch”. “We decided that Butch could be our messenger. We would write notes and attach them to his collar. The other family would then call him and he would deliver the message,” Jim said. “Butch would come whenever either set of kids called, and he seemed to enjoy the attention.”

There were other, harsher realities during that time. Some friends lost siblings to the disease, and others who survived it had to learn how to walk again. Jim remembers one little girl who had to be pulled around in a wagon until she could walk. Thankfully, by the time she was in high school she was not only walking, but also served as a majorette in their high school band.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic is not our most recent one, despite most believing that it is. The Asian Flu Pandemic from 1956-1958 killed 2 million. The Hong Kong Flu Pandemic of 1968 killed a million people and accounted for the deaths of 15% of Hong Kong’s population at that time. The HIV/AIDS Pandemic (at its worst from 2005-2012) killed 36 million worldwide. General Colin Powell said, “No war on the face of the Earth is more destructive than the AIDS pandemic.”

Coronavirus and Common Colds . . .

In the mid-1960’s, scientists began classifying human coronaviruses as new diseases caused by them began emerging. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Pandemic (SARS) of 2003 infected animals and humans. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus Pandemic (MERS-CoV) identified in 2012 did the same.

The chronavirus “family” is made up of many viruses — including that which causes the common cold. Most people can handle a case of the sniffles without any long-term harm. Even SARS and MERS-CoV — and now COVID-19 — infections may be so slight as to go unnoticed. However, other people may develop problems with breathing. In the most severe manifestations, pneumonia and other potentially fatal conditions may develop.

Desperate

Times . . .

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” While Sir Winston Churchill may have said it, ironically it was an ancient Greek physician — Hippocrates — who most scholars believe said it first. In his work Amorphisms (a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease written in 400 B.C.), Hippocrates wrote, “For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure, as to restriction, are most suitable.” Fast forward to Churchill’s day and we have what — over the past 2,300 years or so — has become an English proverb spoken without thought by many.

It is certainly true that the times we are in just now do call for extraordinary efforts from everyone. Social media, often blamed for much of society’s ills, has become a lifeline for many who find themselves separated from family, friends, co-workers, students, bridge partners —the list goes on and on.

Throughout it all, we have managed somehow to keep our sense of humor and, as the old saying goes, are making lemonade out of lemons. Some of us are polishing up our cooking skills and turning out some pretty wonderful homemade meals. One of our lake neighbors is making a new dessert almost daily, and posting pictures of them! Our son made corned beef the other day for the very first time. Others are taking this imposed hiatus to get creative in other ways — painting, writing, music, and reading come to mind.

But while the rest of us are “enjoying” this forced isolation, many are continuing their work so that they can help us through this. Medical professionals, research scientists, manufacturers, food suppliers, fire and police, truckers, electricians, plumbers — this list goes on and on, too. These are the true frontline warriors.

Life as we knew it only a few weeks ago has been altered in ways we couldn’t have imagined. “Take out” is the new fine dining experience.

Telemedicine is the new visit to our doctors. The CDC even has a bot named “Clara” that will check out your symptoms for you online! Parents are tackling unfamiliar math problems as they homeschool their children. Gardens are being planted earlier, and by more people. Life has not stopped, but it has changed.

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay prayerful.

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