Epidemics of a Tragic Kind

“Epidemics are endings of a tragic kind, and they are neither rare nor lamentably, foreseeably eradicable. Viruses – bacilli, fungi and parasites – are as integral a part of the earth’s ecosystem as the plants, animals, and people they destroy. And, the microorganisms have seniority; their ancestors were the first forms of life on the planet. And, their descendants may well be the last.”

The quote is from Charles Panati’s “Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody,” published by Harper and Row in 1989. It talks about “Plagues – one of nature’s most treacherous endings, taking more lives than all the wars in history …” It reads like the pages of yesterday’s newspapers, and today’s and tomorrow’s.

Panati deals with many historic plagues with considerable focus on the three great Bubonic Plagues that brought death and societal destruction to the known world in three waves over more than a thousand years between the 6th and 17th centuries. The death toll from those three encounters with what became known as The Black Death has been estimated at 137 million.

The outbreak in the 1300s was one of unprecedented fury. Panati’s description: “Like a tidal wave it struck in England in the summer of 1347 prostrating the city of London … by the following year, it had washed over Sweden, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Ireland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Panati quotes Italian writer Agniola di Tura writing about burying “five of my children in a single grave. No bells. No tears. This is the end of the world.” It still feels that way in 2020 for those who live through but suffer most in a pandemic rampage.

It all happened a long time ago, you say, when medicine was primitive compared with today, when cures were unknown, when prevention was only just beginning to be considered better than a cure.

Even 1918 – 19 seems too far back in time to be seriously considered an advisory warning when infectious disease threatened. “Spanish ‘flu” they called it, although it is believed by many its origin was U.S. soldiers who had been serving in WW1 in Europe. For sure, 20 million cases had been reported in the USA, with close to one million deaths by the time it was all over.

And it is worth remembering we still do not have “a cure” for the “flu”.

There have been a few “alerts” of pending and possible disaster since, 1918 but they approached, were faced, flashed and faded. Then, late last year, rumbles out of China warned something unhealthy was casting threatening shadows. The world shrugged, “just the regular ‘flu,” and celebrated Christmas.

Early in 2020, concern was growing that maybe, just maybe, “the ‘flu could be a little worse this year.”

And then, what now seems like overnight, it was worse. Much worse. We went to bed one night, warm, safe and feeling cared for and awakened the next day to find the world under lockdown. Law-abiding citizens on holiday or travelling were told to return home as quickly as they could – and if they had difficulty finding a flight, the government would charter planes to get them home.

People feeling unwell were told to stay home; to stay two arm lengths away from anyone they were conversing with; to wash their hands repeatedly. And, we began to hear or read or see on television stories from round the world  of hospitals short of care beds; of minor but important surgeries being postponed; of frontline paramedic first responders, nurses and doctors short of the weapons needed to fight an uncaring monster with a name – Coronavirus-19.

And, every day we got a tally of those newly infected, those infected but mildly and recovering; those more seriously infected, the number hospitalized; the number in intensive care; the number requiring assistance from machinery to breathe; the severe shortage of that equipment; and daily, the number of dead. Each day the totals grew.

In mid-April it was announced that the death rate in the USA had reached 35,000, surpassing Italy with 22,000 plus Pandemic plague fatalities.

And each day we chafed a little over travel restrictions, wondering when we would be able to again shop and wander through stores at will, converse with friends face to face, not six feet apart; and go out for a special occasion dinner.

And, I got to wondering how we would all be making out if we were recovering from the major earthquake we are assured will hit my part of the world – the west coast of Canada and the USA one day.

Just think for a minute before you answer. We have been told it could be huge and up to six or seven days before aid could get to us through ruined streets. We have been well-schooled over the years to have a food supply for at least seven days stashed away, a water supply handy, a basic first aid kit, battery-operated flashlights, somewhere close designated for basic sanitation and, of course, our all-important medications.

COVID-19 has shut us down and is inconveniently upsetting our comfortable pew living. The latest news from international Epidemiologists tells us to get used to the new normal – that COVID-19 is on course to peak in waves until 2022 – unless science can find a shield for us.

While waiting it might might be wise to revive those old advisories on the Big One.

(Readers not familiar with the works of Charles Panati should seek him out for reading guaranteed to move the mind to new challenges, maybe even new conclusions. He’s been writing since at least 1974 with (Supersenses.)


  1. A more recent New York based journalist 20 years ago wrote “Betrayal of Trust – the collapse of global public health”. It documents in great detail why the world was/is not prepared for a major pandemic. I notice she is presently commenting frequently on what is happening in New York and the USA.

  2. While I expect the Canadian situation to begin a return to normal in a few weeks I foresee devastation in the Majority World (formerly called the Third World: Asia, Africa and Latin America).

    Healthcare there is primitive and social distancing impossible, as is stashing away food and water. The pandemic could continue in these areas for years.

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