08 August 2020

The New York Times: “Your Ancestors Knew Death in Ways You Never Will”

This past March, before coronavirus cases began to mount, the annual death rate in New York City was about six per 1,000 New Yorkers. The virus’s first wave added about 2.5 more deaths per 1,000 to that baseline. By contrast, from 1800 into the 1850s, deaths in the city rose in a relentless series of epidemic spikes, year after year, with only brief respites in between.

The annual baseline back then was about 25 deaths per 1,000 New Yorkers, and in some years the toll reached 50 per 1,000. In other words, in bad years, New Yorkers saw twice as many people around them die as usual. And they were used to seeing about four times as much death as we now do.

The sharpest peaks were the cholera epidemics of 1832, 1849 and 1854. But plagues came in waves, sometimes more than one simultaneously: yellow fever, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhus and meningitis.

Other than cholera and typhus, most of those were childhood diseases that adults were immune to because they had survived them, so the chart is a parabola of parental grief, each spike another nail in a hundred small coffins.

Donald G. McNeil Jr.

A good way to put things into perspective for people who fear the disruption caused by the pandemic and that the world will never return to normal: throughout history and across the globe, humanity experienced plagues many times before, with much larger death tolls. With resilience, patience and cooperation we can get through this crisis, however schoking and menacing it may seem.

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City
The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

A vaccine may be close at hand, and so may treatments like monoclonal antibodies that will cut our losses.

Till then, we need not accept death as our overlord — we can simply hang on and outlast him.

At the same time, looking at the history of diseases should serve as a cautionary tale for the agitators proclaiming that it is all a hoax, refusing to adopt basic preventive measures, distrusting and smearing scientists, rejecting vaccines: we are in a much better situation compared to previous centuries precisely because of scientific advancement, better treatments and sanitation. Denying scientific advice will only lead us back to more suffering, disease, and premature deaths.

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