October 1, 2022

Northern Death

By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 11, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic marches inexorably toward ignominious Milestones of Death here in the United States. 

We've now eased past 650,000 COVID deaths here. Soon enough we will surge past the estimated 675,000 Americans who died in the 1918–19 flu pandemic, and this coronavirus will become our deadliest disease outbreak ever. (October 1918 remains the deadliest month in U.S. history from any cause, with at least 200,000 flu/pneumonia deaths.)  

Even sooner we will surpass 667,000, the number of confirmed combat deaths in all US wars combined. There are another 40,000 or so listed as missing but even if we add those to the confirmed combat deaths, our covid fatalities will soon exceed that number, too.

Worldwide, even with 219 million confirmed cases and nearly 4.55 million deaths, our current pandemic is not among the all-time worst.

The previously mentioned flu pandemic of 1918-19, sometimes called the Spanish flu, infected as many as 500 million around the world and killed at least 25 million and perhaps twice that many. The peculiarity of that virus was that it did not attack the very young or the elderly but mostly young, healthy adults with no comorbidities.

Sometimes it takes us longer to identify and slow down a rampaging virus. The HIV/AIDS worldwide pandemic lasted from 2005 to 2012 and took at least 36 million lives. It would have been even worse had not then-President George Bush endorsed and authorized medicine shipped to parts of Africa that were at risk of losing an entire generation.

The alpha dog of all pandemics was the bubonic plague outbreak that laid waste to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia between 1346 and 1353. Without a clue as to what was causing it or how to stop it, as many as 200 million died before it had run its course.

Prior to the introduction of vaccines and medical intervention, we used to isolate contagious people. Typhoid victims were stashed on an island in the Hudson River, tuberculosis sufferers were shipped off to Arizona to recover and stay away from the rest of us, and those unfortunate enough to contract Hansen's disease (also known as leprosy) went all the way to their own island in the Hawai'i chain. Staying home to isolate doesn't sound quite so harsh by comparison.

The real difference between now and previous pandemics is we are much more capable of quickly identifying the problem, developing strategies to slow its spread, and then finding a way to combat it. Grim as the COVID numbers are, they likely would be much worse had we not locked down and masked up. The rapid development of a safe, effective, and fully approved vaccine helped even more.

So what's the point? 

Just a reminder that pandemics have always been with us, and the current version is neither especially unusual nor record-breaking by historical standards. But it is a cautionary tale that even with all of our current know-how, we are still vulnerable. This won't be the last pandemic and certainly won't be the worst.  

First, as the interface between humans and wildlands, and wildlife continues to increase, the likelihood of zoonotic — animal-to-human — transmissions becomes more likely. We know viruses we'd rather not have are lurking in some animals. We also know that insects — fleas and mosquitoes especially — as well as their rodent hosts and others like bats carry a full menu of viruses to which they've become immune but we have not. We don't know if those viruses can be transmitted from animal to human until they are.

Second, there are likely at least a half-dozen countries actively working on bio-weapons despite their prohibition by treaty. Creating and maintaining deadly viruses for the purpose of research and developing vaccines and cures is, unfortunately, less than a half-step away from weaponizing those same viruses. The accidental or intentional release of those experimental bugs could be catastrophic. Some accuse the Chinese of doing just that with COVID-19, though there's thus far no proof. 

Third, and perhaps most frightening of all, comes from an unlikely source: the slowly melting permafrost in Siberia and elsewhere climate change is causing. We already know the anthrax bacteria and some pox viruses can survive a very long time frozen and can reanimate once unfrozen. Of greater concern is we have absolutely no clue what else might be lurking, nor from how long ago. The possibility of a previously unknown microbe that is dangerous to us and looking for a host is quite real.

Clearly, we cannot create treatments for illness not yet known to us. But we can certainly make sure we stockpile and maintain both national and statewide emergency medical supplies, establish supply chains not so easily broken, and create a coherent national health emergency policy we can understand and follow. That would at least give us a head start on the next plague that comes calling.


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