Editor’s note: This commentary is by David Roth, a Burlington resident and entrepreneur.
One hundred years from now, what will they say about us, about the way we handled the pandemic of the year 2020? What will be written about how we reacted, how we treated each other, how we healed the sick and prevented unnecessary death? Will the stories told about 2020 differ from the ones told about the 1918 influenza pandemic or the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages?
Our current reality would argue that the stories about 2020 will be eerily similar to those of past plagues and pandemics, because even though so much has changed technologically over the centuries, we seem determined to continually repeat our most devastating mistakes.
Let’s look back 700 years to 1348 in Florence, Italy, during a devastating outbreak of the plague – the setting for Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron.” Boccaccio writes that “… some say it descended upon the human race through the influence of the heavenly bodies, others that it was a punishment signifying Heaven’s righteous anger at our immoral ways of life. But whatever its cause it had originated some years earlier in the East before it unhappily spread westward, growing in strength as it swept relentlessly on from one place to the next. Some people were of the opinion that a sober and moderate mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection. They therefore formed themselves into groups and lived in isolation from everyone else. Others took the opposite view, and maintained that an infallible way of warding off the plague was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go around singing, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.”
Death tolls among those who disregarded the severity of the plague were enormous. So much has changed in almost 700 years, but so much has stayed the same.
Our more recent past offers similar observations of human behavior. The 1918 influenza pandemic followed much the same trajectory we are experiencing today with almost identical divisions evident between those who decided to follow protocols and those who decided to “enjoy life to the full.” For example, in late September of 1918 during the influenza pandemic, the city of Philadelphia hosted a massive Freedom Bond parade. Within days, hospitals in the city were overflowing and almost 3,000 people had died. Contrast Philadelphia with St. Louis – where during the exact same time schools were closing again after reopening earlier that month (sound familiar?), and libraries, courthouses, churches and places of business were limiting the number of people who could congregate. The eventual death toll in Philadelphia was staggering compared to St. Louis.
Fast forward to today. What has really changed about human behavior? Not much it seems. Although 100 years brought about massive technological advances in health care, the 2020 pandemic has resulted in higher excess death rates than did the 1918 pandemic (“excess” refers to death rates that are higher than usually expected in a given period of time). As a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association observed, “… the relative increase [in excess deaths] during the early COVID-19 period was substantially greater than during the peak of the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.” That trajectory has continued, and has actually gotten worse.
Although clearly neither time nor history are on our side, Vermont and Vermonters must continue to lead the nation by setting examples of what works and by not changing course. Masks work — we must all wear them. (“Anti-maskers” of 2020 are the same as “mask-slackers” of 1918. Both groups were wrong.) Social distancing works — we must all practice it regardless of the inconvenience, and we must not fall victim to erroneous treatment rumors (e.g. hydroxychloroquine is touted now but remains unproven and potentially dangerous, just like quinine was touted in 1918 but was ineffective. Both are malaria drugs.). As we approach the months that will see the confluence of the seasonal flu and the coronavirus, our vigilance must not waiver regardless of the very contradictory messages received everyday from the federal government. We know what works (and it’s fairly simple), so let’s get to it.
Regardless of how long the current pestilence lasts, little will be the same. It is also clear that history will remember that which our society did during its most trying time since the World Wars to protect and to ease the suffering of its most vulnerable. History (and we) will hopefully remember and chronicle how we maintained our humanity despite the suffering, and how we showed true compassion by doing simple things like wearing masks and not congregating – not how quickly we rushed back to a normalcy that no longer exists. We certainly will and must reopen and repair and rebuild society, but only by measured steps when it is safe and wise and medically prudent to do so — and let’s be clear, that’s not now. The history of 2020 will either chronicle a society that learned from the past or one that simply repeated the past’s mistakes. Vermont is in a position to help ensure we learn and safely move forward.