From humanity’s early days, diseases and illnesses have created huge suffering and population decreases. During the past millennia and a half, several of the largest outbursts include (with estimated deaths) the Justinian Plague of the sixth century (30-50 million); Black Death of the 14th century (200 million, includes 60 percent of Europe’s population); recurrent smallpox outbreaks, 16th century onwards (56 million); Spanish Flu of 1918-19 (50 million plus); and more recently, HIV/AIDS (30-35 million), Swine Flu, SARS, and Ebola.
Despite the high numbers, one trend stands out: When considering the death rate based on population, we see a general downward drift. Improvements in understanding and care of the afflicted have had a positive impact.
What of our present health and economic crisis?
With a world death toll (as this is written) of nearly 100,000, including 17,000 in the United States, we are in a crisis that will not end at the close of this month, or in May. Not until a vaccine is available dare we realistically think about a return to normalcy. To be sure, an updated White House model shows fewer COVID-19 deaths than had been predicted, now approximately 60,000 by August, down from 82,000. Slight declines in hospitalizations suggest that social distancing is working. For example, a mid-afternoon photo of Main Street in Bluffton, Ohio, on Saturday, March 28, reveals not a single person at what is normally the busiest time of the week.
We have many advantages over those who dealt with great plagues of the past. We have technology and computers and know how to utilize accumulated data in order to make predictions. We can test more effectively than ever before — when we have sufficient equipment and organization. (After downplaying the threat of COVID-19, botched testing has been the number one failure). We can trace people and locate hot spots and focus on them. Yet this is not enough to get us through the crisis.
Oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel cautions that “we will not be able to return to normalcy until we find a vaccine or effective medications.” Until then, perhaps in a year and a half, we will navigate long months when millions of Americans are out of work and suffer anxieties about the adequacy of government loans, covering the mortgage, and buying food.
How much economic pain should we expect people to bear while search for a vaccine or at least effective medications? Emmanuel suggests there is little choice: “If we prematurely end…physical distancing and other measures…deaths could skyrocket.” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman goes further: Because the alternative is death,” we need an extreme lockdown,” a deliberate shutdown of the economy now. That extreme response is not likely, or even desirable.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a trusted member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, cannot say just how competing medical and economic interests can both be served at the same time. Let the disease tell us when to begin opening the economy, he advises. Continue physical distancing and “don’t let up”: shelter in place, avoid groups of over ten, wear masks in public, ramp up the testing of millions to discover those who test positive, and then isolate them.
It has become a cliché that Americans are resilient and will see their way forward. And yet it’s true. We yearn to see glimmers of hope. Lost jobs and consequent personal anxieties can drag us down. Nevertheless, realism too has its place.
The fact is that we have a long road ahead of us. The economic collapse came quickly, but recovery will not. Unemployment has gone viral as millions of jobs disappeared overnight. Businesses closed their doors, with many smaller ones never to reopen. The budgets of individuals and families soon evaporate.
Meanwhile, the hope is that heavy federal stimulus will ameliorate suffering, both financially and psychologically. For the immediate future, perhaps the rest of this [that?] year, this is the reality
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.