History says we've faced worse than coronavirus

History says we've faced worse than coronavirus

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My dad often said that nothing is so bad that it couldn’t be worse. This used to annoy me, him making light of my troubles.

But of course he was right. None of my problems could compare with difficulties of his hardscrabble boyhood in the 1930s.

I’ve thought about hard times a lot since the outbreak of coronavirus. Maybe it’s because “pandemic” sounds so much like “panic.” The prediction of as many as 1.7 million deaths sounds unprecedented until I consider history.

HIV/AIDS that peaked about 15 years ago has claimed an estimated 32 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

The Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968 claimed 1 million victims. The virus, spread by returning troops from Vietnam, sickened tens of thousands. I was one of them with a “mild” case. I missed a week of eighth grade. Everything ached but my hair.

The Asian flu that emerged in 1956 kept going for two years. Two million people died worldwide. I’m glad I didn’t get it. I was busy catching German measles, chicken pox and Scarlatina.

I do recall the aftermath of the dreaded polio epidemic of the 1950s — the children who walked with limps and crutches, the farmhouse with a ramp for a young man confined to a wheelchair.

I was one of the lucky ones, born late enough to receive polio shots. Yes shots, not sugar cubes. Those came later. I’m sure the Salk vaccine was as eagerly anticipated as the coronavirus vaccine is today. Scientists are working furiously, to be sure.

It feels eerie to see so few people on the road, unsettling to hear news of the coming dread, not know how long it will take to burn itself out.

But I remind myself that things could be worse. I think of books I’ve read about calamity and disease, because I love survival stories. These are not joyful books, but they do put things in perspective.

“The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” by John Barry. The dreaded Spanish flu of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people, many of them young and in the prime of their life. One-fifth of the world’s population fell ill, according to archives.gov. Within months, this pandemic had claimed more people than any other illness in recorded history. Two of them were my great-grandmothers.

“The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” by Steven Johnson. This compelling history focuses on the 1854 cholera outbreak in London and how a doctor and a minister teamed to discover the culprit: a contaminated well in an overcrowded neighborhood. Until then, people thought bad air caused disease, not germs or bad water.

“Year of Wonders: The Novel of the Plague” by Geraldine Brooks. A tale of the terror involving a 17th-century English village that isolates itself to stop the spread of the plague. It’s based on fact. The bubonic plague of 1665-66 killed an estimated 100,000 Londoners — nearly a quarter of the population.

But pestilence hasn’t been the only adversity. Natural disasters have taken their toll too. I’ve read:

“The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1350-1850” by Brian M. Fagan. A scan of the results of climate change from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century, including the incredible Year of No Summer, 1816, that brought crop failures and economic disaster to communities across the Northern Hemisphere.

“The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” by Timothy Egan. Don’t ask me how anyone lived through this environmental disaster. Thanks to poor farm practices and extended drought, dust blew from Kansas to coat ships at sea off the Atlantic Coast. Oh, and all this happened during the Great Depression.

“The San Francisco Earthquake” by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. I read this detailed account of destruction and fire the night before Sept. 11, 2001. I went to bed thinking of one disaster and woke up to realize another.

Once the coronavirus subsides, we will have our own survival stories to tell. Even though things look bleak, we will endure. The world will keep on turning.

Tammy Wilson is a writer who

lives near Newton. Contact her

at tamra@tamrawilson.com

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