History in Perspective

I remember reading in my CS Lewis class about the concept of chronological snobbery. In essence, it’s the tendency to think that people who lived in earlier times weren’t as bright and well informed as we are today. Following this line of thought, it’s easy to believe the mistakes they made people in the past would never be made by people in the present, simply because we’ve come so much further, intellectually speaking.

It’s a hard bias to overcome, but the pandemic is certainly helping me see some of my own shortcomings with it. I remember at the beginning of this whole fiasco, reading all about how terrible Philadelphia did with the Spanish Influenza back in the day. How they ignored the advice of scientists and held a big parade, thereby infecting many more people than they would have otherwise.

What a bunch of boneheads, right? Good thing we got over that tendency in 100 years of progress, I thought.

Fast forward to today, and you read plenty of stories about just that happening now. If you want to play tee ball about it, you don’t have to look any further than Trump actually using “Biden will listen to the scientists” as a reason for people not to vote for Biden. But I’d rather this post not devolve into another litmus test on Trump, so I’ll turn my attention overseas instead. The Czech Republic was a model of a good response to COVID back in March. They instituted a nationwide mask mandate, and they really came together to fight it. Successfully.

But in the intervening months, it appears that national sentiment of unity against the virus disappeared. The desire to keep wearing masks diminished to the point that they’re now mired in the same mask debate that America is in. This despite the fact that they saw firsthand just what masks did for them in March. What’s the result? Their rates are skyrocketing, hospitals are filling up, and they look like they’re right back in the thick of the mess.

People are people. People made mistakes about the pandemic in 1918 for the same reason they’re making mistakes about it now. You deal with anything for a long period of time, and you get tired. Worn out. You just want it over. So it’s no wonder to me now that the second wave of the 1918 influenza was so much worse than the first. Like with COVID, they had their first wave in the spring. They had a respite over the summer, and then when the fall hit, the death rate dwarfed what they’d experienced in the spring. (There was a third wave a few months later, as well. Not as bad as the second, but still much worse than the first.)

People have a tendency to listen to things they want to be true. I want the pandemic to be over as much as anyone, but wanting it to be done doesn’t mean it’s done. This worldwide reluctance to wear a mask properly baffles me, but I suppose it’s due to the fact people don’t want to be uncomfortable, and masks are uncomfortable. So it’s easier to not wear one, or wear one but leave your nose uncovered, or wear a face shield instead of a mask (despite the evidence showing this isn’t nearly as effective). I see all the pictures in my social media feed. I see far fewer masked pictures than unmasked ones. Slews of family get togethers or parties. I would love to go back to that life, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the place we need to be to do it. For now, I realize that makes me “one of those crazy COVID pessimists” with some. Such is life.

My personal opinion (and I am no scientist) is that back in February and March, there was much, much more COVID out in the places that were doing so badly than we really recognized. So when we look at COVID case rates now (which are much higher than spring) and compare them to the death rates (which are much lower), it’s easy to think “we’ve got this disease conquered. We know how to deal with it.” It’s true that we have a better idea what we can do to diminish the effects, but I think if we saw what the real COVID rates were then and compared them to now, we’d feel much less secure.

I tend to think we’re at halftime. (At least, that’s what I optimistically think at this point.) Some countries had a really good first half, but we’re beginning to see what changes COVID made to its offense and defense (and how our teams have responded). Just because you’re up 35-0 at the half doesn’t mean you’re not going to lose the game. That wasn’t true in 1918, and it’s not true today.


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