Hurricanes, forest fires, pandemics, and social unrest make for an interesting time to be alive. The irony is that the two areas of knowledge most likely to help us understand our rapidly changing world, science, and history, are two of the most controversial and least respected fields of learning in the view of our current administration. For me, history provides the “what” happened, and science provides the “why and how.” The knowledge we get from studying past events can help us learn how to better deal with today’s world.
Some of what we are confronting today has been confronted before. The causes may be different but the impacts are similar. Going back to Biblical times, famine, and pestilence (plagues) of humans and animals, played a significant role in the lives and behavior of people. In more recent times, the Black Death, which began in 1346 and covered North Africa spreading into Europe, killed possibly more than 50 million people in Europe alone. Gathering statistics at that time was not an exact science so we do not know how many people died directly from the plague. In England, whole villages were completely depopulated and starvation was common as there were few people left to work the land. The cause of the Black Death was a type of Bubonic plague, a bacterial infection that took several forms. It was carried by rats on board ships crossing the Mediterranean Sea and English Channel, and transmitted by fleas that traveled from rats to people. Person to person infection happened through body fluids, respiratory aerosols, and fleas. People at that time had no idea of the cause or transmission of disease and considered it the wrath of God. Ironically, religious pilgrimages of penitence may have even helped spread the disease.
The Great Plague of London, also caused by Bubonic plague, began in 1665 and lasted for a year ending when the Great Fire destroyed the city center. By that time, the plague had spread to many towns and villages far from London. By numbers, it was not as devastating as the Black Death had been, as people were more aware of the benefit of isolating the sick. The plague still exists today but through scientific research, we now have antibiotic treatments to control it.
The Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 was a pandemic, meaning that it was a worldwide infection, with a death toll of up to 50 million people. It coincided with the near ending of World War I which gave ample opportunity for the spread of the virus with the homeward movement of troops. The virus that caused this flu is H1N1, a virus that is still around in some forms today. There were no antiviral drugs or antibiotics to treat the symptoms of the disease which had a devastating effect especially on younger adults, many stressed by war conditions and overcrowding.
We all know something about the current pandemic and we all know ways in which we can try to keep ourselves safe. We can know these things because there is a scientific basis for understanding the disease, its effects on the body, and how it spreads. Just imagine how powerful that information is. If the folks back in 1346 had known about the rats and the fleas that were transmitting the plague could they have changed the course of history? Could the people of London in 1665 done the same and prevented the spread of plague to the tiny village of Eyam in Derbyshire? Maybe.
We do know how to protect ourselves and others from Covid-19. It is a small price to pay, not an infringement of our Civil Rights, to be asked to protect those more vulnerable members of society from a deadly disease. We also believe that there will eventually be a vaccine against the virus that causes this disease. The public and political pressure on researchers are great and stressful. Good, accurate scientific research takes time. It is a precise, methodical system with checks and balances that can end with a safe product, helpful to all. A poorly researched and scantily tested vaccine could be more dangerous than the disease it is meant to counter. Some of us remember the time when there were no vaccines for Mumps, Measles, Rubella, Polio, Diphtheria, and Tuberculosis. Many of us suffered through some of those diseases and even lost family members and playmates to them. It is important to appreciate the long, hard work, over many years, which led to the vaccine development that we take for granted today.
Other happenings in our country and all over the world show the importance of science and our support for it. Wildfires in the western states of the U.S. and Australia, strong hurricanes and coastal tidal surges, flooding, melting sea ice are all impacting people and wildlife living in or near vulnerable locations. Unique species of animals and plants are threatened, reducing the biodiversity on earth. People in many vulnerable areas are losing their homes, food sources, and livelihoods. Climate research is not doom and gloom, but the way to a safer future. Denying the importance of these natural events as flukes or poor land management, combined with a desire for life to remain unchanging as we remember it, is to deny that we live on a changing planet. Surviving on our changing planet depends on thinking forward and encouraging the innate creative skills that we have as humans to change with the planet. This is another frontier for scientific research.
The history of the industrial, commercial, and environmental development of this and other countries gives us plenty of examples of good and bad ideas. We have no excuse to waste time on the bad ideas, the changing climate will not wait, as the ancient phrase tells us, “Time and tide wait for no man.”