We’re often told that the situation created by the attack of the new coronavirus is “unique” and “unprecedented.” And yet, at the same time, scientists assure us that the emergence of new viruses is “natural”—that viruses are always mutating or picking up and losing bits of DNA. But if lethal new viruses have emerged again and again during human history, why has dealing with this one been such a struggle?
The uniqueness of this viral attack isn’t because of mutations in its DNA or in the DNA of the human genome. Its uniqueness is result of changes in what is sometimes referred to our “cultural DNA”—changes that have occurred in the last few centuries. It’s these “mutations” that have made us extremely vulnerable to this rather ordinary new virus.
If this novel coronavirus had emerged in 1719 instead of 2019, the effect would have been very different. For a start, the disease might not have spread beyond the place where it first appeared. Most people didn’t move around much in 1719. But merchants did, so if a merchant became infected at a market in Wuhan, he might have carried the virus to other markets and passed it on to other merchants. Then it could have spread, at walking pace, around the globe. But, if an infected merchant had turned up at the market where your ancestors shopped 300 years ago, they might have still escaped infection. This is because villagers in 1719 were in the habit of keeping strangers at arm’s length. Over the millennia, people who had been too trusting and friendly had been swindled, robbed, and infected. Fear of strangers was passed down the generations, helped by legends of witches, goblins, and shape-shifting trolls. Three hundred years later, we may still teach our children to be wary of strangers, but we also encourage them to trust. We want them to feel comfortable in public places and believe that food prepared by strangers in a restaurant is safe to eat.
“No one was collecting, analyzing, or publishing public health data in the 1700s.”
Despite their nervousness around strangers, the new coronavirus may have eventually spread to some of the communities where your ancestors lived in 1719. They would have then been at risk. But they wouldn’t have been aware of any extra risk. Life in the community wouldn’t have changed much. As is the case today, the virus would have caused mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in most of its victims. A few would have become very ill and if they died, their friends and family would have grieved in the normal way. Plenty of eighteenth-century death records mention “fever” as the cause of death. But no one was collecting, analyzing, or publishing public health data in the 1700s. No one would have worried about a shortage of hospital beds because there were no hospitals—at least not hospitals as we know them. People were nursed at home by their families. Doctors and other healers visited people on their sickbed but not everyone could afford their fees, and there was little these medics could do anyway. Their beliefs about the causes of fevers were wrong and their idea of “intensive care” might have involved using leeches to remove some of their patient’s blood.
Your ancestors might have noticed that a few more people had fever in the year that the new virus attacked, but it wouldn’t have been remembered as a pandemic year. The “Black Death” plague, which sickened Eurasia and Northern Africa during the middle years of the 1300s, was a pandemic. It probably killed over a 100 million people at a time when the entire human population was only about 500 million. Entire towns and villages were wiped out.
The coronavirus caused a pandemic in the 2020 population because we’re very different from the humans who lived only a few centuries ago. In 1720, infections regularly spread through communities—cholera, yellow fever, malaria, measles, smallpox… to name but a few. An infected cut could be fatal. Most people died before they became elderly and, if they did become elderly and developed heart disease or cancer, they died quite quickly. Obesity was very rare. The COVID-19 death toll would have been tiny because, in those days, the human population had very few people in the high-risk categories.
Yes, it’s Modern Life that made us vulnerable to COVID-19. There have long been voices warning that the cushiness of our existence would make us weak. Perhaps some people might see this as a reason to return to what they think of as a “simpler and more natural life.” But this would be silly. Our vulnerability to this virus isn’t due to the failings of modern culture. It’s the result of its triumphs. Consumed by the worry of tragedies close to home, our ancestors didn’t have time to think about unknown others. They were barely aware of being part of “humanity.” The luxury of feeling reasonably secure in our lives has made the unexpected and (we hope) temporary perturbation in our security feel like a terrible and upsetting shock.
“Arguments about fairness are a healthy sign. In 1719, not only was there no understanding of immunization; there was no understanding that humans could and should strive for fairness.”
Lives matter to most people today—all lives. We haven’t just become more squeamish about sickness and death. We care more and we care about more people. This cultural change can’t be explained by things like freedoms, rights, wealth, or laws. The real reason for this change is that the world’s humans have become much more connected. And, if we feel that we should strive for justice, fair trade, and the free exchange of ideas, it’s because we feel part of a complex network that binds together humans who will never physically meet. This network barely existed in 1720 but, over the last three centuries, the ancestors of people from all nations forged new links. The trust between people and peoples gradually grew. This is still a work in progress. The network of connections remains tragically weak in some places, and some people don’t feel connected at all. But the building and strengthening of this network is continuing.
As our twenty-first-century pandemic began, some people expressed hope that getting through this together would increase trust and make our societies stronger. Could this be true? We’re now arguing over the fairness of the vaccine rollout. But arguments about fairness are a healthy sign. In 1719, not only was there no understanding of immunization; there was no understanding that humans could and should strive for fairness.
Human cultures continue to mutate at an eye-watering rate. Each day brings unexpected new challenges. Disagreement of over what sources of information can be trusted is very worrying. But looked at over the long term, there’s reason to hope. Our times of mask-wearing and lockdown may give us a new appreciation of how precious social connections are. This may help to strengthen the net of trust between peoples.