Diseases are as much a part of everyday life as births and deaths. These facts, however, do not usually go beyond the circle of the affected people. What has happened so that now we are more aware than ever of other people’s health? No one will be surprised if we say thatthe current Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. Even turning something as private as illness into a collective concern. The same hospitals and health centers where, until recently, dramas limited to personal and family life were lived, now lead a more collective story. The scientific definition of a pandemic, in fact, responds to this same logic. It is not a specific and localized problem, but a risk that already concerns everyone. Geographically and personally speaking.
“In western societies we are used to seeing serious diseases become chronic or degenerative. The word epidemic, in fact, was used until recently as an ‘alarm signal’ to warn of the risk of social problems such astraffic accidentswavegender violencemore than to talk about strictly health issues, “he explainsCarlos Tabernero, biologist and professor at the Center for the History of Science (CEHIC). Meanwhile, in the collective imagination, the danger of a pandemic disease had been relegated for years to the big screen. Like a cold and conscientious evil that, sooner or later, would appear to shake the sanitary, political, social and economic foundations of a civilization. And now, with this image well present, the pandemic ofcoronavirushas emerged asone of those dangers that, although they are announced, we did not see coming. Hence the fear and uncertainty caused by this event on a global scale.
Until now, infectious disease pandemics were experienced as something remote. As if Ebola was only a problem of Africa and HIV, of the groups that were exposed to risky practices. But the pandemics concern us all. coronavirus is making this clear. Both the problem and the solution pass through the community. Its expansion and its brake start from collective responsibility. Something that is paradoxical at least in such an individualistic society … “adds Tabernero, also an expert in analysis of scientific discourse in the media field. We are, therefore, beforethe first truly universal pandemic. Because of its scope. And for its visibility. The disease that everyone inevitably talks about.
Before continuing with this story let us remember that pandemic is not synonymous with apocalypse. Not the end of the world. “Pandemics are something that occurs in nature, although until now people believed that it was only a thing of the past or, at best, of science fiction stories. So it does not surprise me that, these days, there are those who repeat ad nauseam that it is something artificial, created to destroy. If people only know about pandemics from the movies, it’s also understandable that they try to interpret their evolution that way. Here the problem is that there is a lack of a basic scientific culture to understand what is happening, “defends the biologist and scientific popularizerDaniel Arbos, who, together with the physicist and communicatorMàrius Belles, reflects on what are the potential threats that our species could face in the book ’14 ways to destroy humanity ‘.
If we go through the apocalyptic threats, viruses and bacteria stand out as much (or more) than the impact of an asteroid or the effects of climate change. Let’s not forget that outbreaks of infectious diseases have wreaked real havoc. In the fourteenth century,the black plague left about 50 million dead. Measles, 200 million. Smallpox, 300 million more. More recently, already at the beginning of the last century, the misnamed “Spanish flu” killed between 50 and 100 million lives. “The good news is that, unlike other health crises, science is managing to respond quickly. In the 1980s, it took two years to understand that AIDS was caused by a virus. Now, SARS-CoV- 2 has been identified in just a few days, in a week we had its genome sequenced and after 15 days there were already diagnostic tests, “explains Arbós. History, therefore, does not have to repeat itself.
The world has never had so much live information about a global epidemicas with the covid-19. The consequences of the 1918 flu are still debated today. Now, however, the retransmission is practically instantaneous. Science works against the clock to offer an explanation of what is happening.Medicine is updated on the fly to respond to the need. And the consequences of the pandemic are narrated in real time through, for example, the pages of this newspaper. The pandemic is global and its visibility, too.
A drama in three acts
Still, past events can serve to interpret the present. The historian of medicineCharles Rosenbergexplains that epidemics unfold as a drama in three acts. In the first, citizens try to maintain at all costs the appearance of tranquility and thereby ignore the clues that indicate the progression of the disease. In the second, when it is impossible to ignore reality, people react by demanding explanations from public officials.In the third, the crisis “of an individual and collective nature” continues to grow and, finally, leads to the inevitable closure. This strangely familiar script repeats itself in virtually every health crisis, from the 14th-century outbreaks of plague to the current coronavirus pandemic. The future of the story is always the same, only the characters and the setting change.
Continuing with the literary metaphor, the historian argues that we can understandpandemics as stories that reveal the “latent problems” of a society. Structural failures that might not otherwise be so obvious. As the deficiencies of the health system, which are crudely shown in the most extreme moments. Like the need forstrengthen public health measures, including hygiene and vaccines, to prevent something like this from happening again. Like the authorities’ attempt to apply more or less authoritarian measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. Or, of course, the spontaneous emergence of healers and phonies trying to sell miraculous solutions to the disease. “Historians have already seen everything,” he jokes.David S. Jones, an expert in the culture of medicine, in an analysis of the ‘historical lessons’ that we could (or should) apply to the current coronavirus pandemic.
The lessons of the past
HistoriansAngel CasalsYMaria-Milagros Rivera Garretas, from the Department of History and Archeology of the University of Barcelona (UB), explain that, to understand past epidemics, the context is almost more important than the disease itself. Let’s not forget that even now experts remember that the evolution of a health crisis ddepends on biological factors(how is the pathogen that causes it)and social(how a society reacts in this type of situation). The chronicles of the plague of Justinian in the 6th century in Constantinople or the stories of Leonor López de Córdoba of the plague of the 15th century in Spain can be read, even today, as a universal account of social frustration with ‘the power of nature’ .
The plagues of the ancient world broke out causing real havoc. For its unexpected nature. For the lack of understanding of what was happening. For the lack of knowledge on how to react. “In the introduction to Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’, the reaction of people to a plague outbreak is exceptionally described. And, broadly speaking, we can see similarities with some aspects of today. People did not know what to do. Many they were fleeing from the cities. The doctors were overwhelmed. And everyone was trying to understand what made some people die and others seemed immune to the disease, “explains Rivera Garretas. People, then,I went to religion so much to find an explanationto what was happening to beg for the end of the epidemic. And, “what at first was experienced as penance and resignation (a way of reflecting and repenting of excesses), later became a will to celebrate, to make up for lost time,” added the historian.
The scientific answer
At the nineteenth century, history changes. “Science is the new religion“Casals wields. Scientific and medical advances, in fact, are interpellated both to avoid the emergence of these infectious diseases and to mitigate their effect.” Knowledge of microbes, the application of public health measures and the development of vaccines they will mark modern pandemics, “he adds. Still, science by itself is not the holy grail. Because emerging diseases have always been there and always will be. And because, once again, scientific knowledge is of little use without a consistent social reaction. The science journalistLaura Spinney, author of ‘The Pale Horseman’, explains that the 1918 flu epidemic spread, in part, due to lack of knowledge about what was happening. In a world of information censored by the First World War, the pandemic spread silently. An error that, at least now, we have managed not to repeat.
Anything we can learn then? Daniel Arbós, who for years has focused his outreach work on denouncing pseudoscientific practices, remembersfalse news about epidemics has always existed. And there is an anecdote at least interesting, just to look at the news with a certain context … When seventeenth-century Barcelona faced a black plague epidemic, smoke peddlers also appeared everywhere to proclaim miraculous remedies to end this evil. Of course, as soon as it was clear that it was a scam, the local authorities sent to kill and dismember these healers and asked to hang their limbs so that the public understood that health is not a game.