I’ve been reading “The British Are Coming,” by Rick Atkinson, a history of the American Revolutionary War, which is a fantastic book.1 One thing that has struck me was how precarious life used to be. Of course, I know how disease and death was much more common in the past, from plagues and pandemics and accidents and war and childbirth. But as Atkinson relates the story of the Revolution, he always lists alongside the casualties from battle, how many more men and women died from disease. Almost 3 times as many Americans died of disease as from battle.2 Smallpox, typhus, dysentery, and other diseases were rampant in both prison camps and army bivouacs.
Summer was not the idyllic time of vacation then as it was it now because summer was when pestilence and vermin ran rampant. Winter was no respite because of the threat of cold and starvation. (Imagine never being able to get warm enough to sit anywhere without being bundled up.)3 Childbirth was fraught with danger and maternal mortality was a constant threat as was the death of newborns and children from all kinds of dangers.
And yet much of that has essentially disappeared in our modern age, at least in the developed world. Our medicine today would seem like magic to our colonial forebears and we are relatively free from the kind of mortality and suffering that they endured. (Relatively).
And thus our reaction when it comes to the COVID-19 coronavirus. As a people, we are so unused to virulent, contagious, and potentially deadly disease that we don’t know how to react appropriately. In 1777, a whole village could be decimated by an outbreak of smallpox and that would be that. Today, if one person dies of COVID-19, we panic because we’re scared. All we know is what the media tells us and their information is designed to scare us. We see movies about outbreaks and pandemic and all the other apocalyptic fairy tales and we think this is how it will all go down.
We don’t know what to do so we buy stuff that it seems like would need: face masks, even though they don’t stop this virus; or alcohol-based hand sanitizer even though regular old soap and water is best. We think we need to prepare to settle in for a quarantine so we head to Costco and fill up our carts with “necessities” like soda and potato chips, while we stop to nibble on the free samples that hundreds of other people have been near or eaten from.
In a way, we’re lucky (or to use the current parlance, “privileged”) because we live in a time and place where we’ve been able to remain separated from death and disease on this ever-present basis and scale. The size of the anti-vaxxer and essential oils-as-cure-all movements is testimony to how well vaccines and modern medicine work for us because we haven’t really seen on a large scale what rejecting modern medicine’s best tools looks like.4
I like to imagine what modern life will be like 250 years from now, how medicine will be as advanced from us as we are from 1770. Instead of broad-based medicines that we hope cure a certain percentage of the population, will doctors custom-build gene-specific cures for us that turn our bodies into the tools to defeat our viral enemies? Or will they have stuff that’s as unimaginable to us now as, say, an MRI would be to the founding fathers?
For now, though, I take comfort in what we have now. I won’t panic. I’ll take reasonable precautions. And I think of the brave men and women who fought and died for freedom, while simultaneously fighting for their lives again illnesses and conditions we take for granted today.
- I’ll have a review of it later, when I’m done. ↩
- 6,800 died in action and 17,000 from disease. ↩
- My Texas-born wife would say that’s how she lives now in the winter in our Massachusetts home. ↩
- Until our rejection of it catches up with us, that is. ↩
- Edward_Jenner_vaccinating_a_boy._Oil_painting_by_E.-E._Hille_Wellcome_L0029094.6249d1aad1a6466781b8d8dc1596d17c: Edward Jenner vaccinating a boy. Oil painting by E.-E. Hillemacher, 1884. (Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images)) | CC BY 2.0