Staying the Course

My home library has a shelf of books on the history of plagues and epidemics. William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples provides a fascinating epidemiological timeline, from the dawn of civilization through the 20th century. 

What this history shows is that microbes have had more effect on the course of human history than all the leaders, tyrants, invasions, political theories, and ‘isms’ combined. 

Pandemics have always been with us and will always be with us. We do not float above nature. We are nature -- like all other living things an exquisite assemblage of molecules and cells. 

Many of these pandemics started when humans consumed other species as food; these animals were already hosts to these viruses.

Just as happened in the 15th and 16th centuries when Europeans exposed Amerindians in the Western Hemisphere to microbes and viruses for which they had no immunity -- so it is when humans anywhere on earth are exposed to viruses inhabiting different species. 

China has now made the eating of wild animals illegal, which may prove hard to enforce. It’s unclear exactly from which animal the COVID virus originated: bats, civets, snakes, pangolins. Horrific as it is to most other peoples around the globe, dogs are on the menu in China and Korea. Which raises profound moral questions beyond the obvious health issues. 

In the 14th century, one-third of Europe was wiped out by plague. In 1917-18 more than a hundred million worldwide died from the Spanish Flu.

What’s going on now is as old as time. As old as the plagues in Egypt at the time of Moses. It’s worse now, it accelerates even faster, because global human population has exploded to seven billion rapidly growing to nine. Carrying capacity, which used to be of only regional concerns, is now global. Everyone is now interconnected by jet travel. Humans can now carry a microscopic virus around the earth in mere hours. 

This current crisis has less to do with politics or ideology than with biology. It’s just science. It’s just nature. History teaches us that we underestimate the dangers of micro-organisms at our peril. 

We know that COVID 19 is highly contagious. 

We know that anyone, anywhere can be a carrier and that anyone, from teenagers on, can get sick, very sick or die. We now know from emerging worldwide statistics that many between the ages of twenty and fifty require hospitalization. We also know the over-60 population is the most likely to succumb. 

As much as we would wish it otherwise, there is no going back to any kind of normal as long as this virus is raging across the human population. 

Instructing the under-60 population to return to a rushed ‘normality’ at the end of the current 15-day period in the interest of restoring the economy now while the virus continues to spread may be a hopeful thought, a noble aspiration -- but a desperate one that will only make everything worse and prolong both the health and economic crisis. 

Even if it were possible to quarantine only the over-60 population, that doesn’t stop everyone under 60 from getting the virus, getting sick, very sick, and requiring hospitalization. In this scenario, the health system still gets overwhelmed. In reality it crashes. What about all the other illnesses needing treatment? What about all the other people needing hospital rooms and ICUs? Who will staff the maternity wards? 

What happens to our national defense if a significant percentage of our armed forces contracts the virus? 

In reality, even with self-imposed quarantines for just older Americans in any rushed ‘get back to work’ scenario many thousands of elderly will die anyway -- because there’s just no way to completely seal off more than thirty million people.

And who are these thirty million seniors? They are doctors, scientists, business leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, nurses, authors, educators, clergy, esteemed elders who carry the wisdom, culture, traditions and learning of our society and our people. We need them alive! Active! Involved! Contributing! It’s not just about hanging out with the grandkids.

The president must courageously do the right thing. He must not change course. Any diminution of the admittedly drastic but sensible measures he and many governors have taken will exacerbate the crisis, cause greater suffering, cost more lives and damage the economy even more in the long run. 

We are a great people. We stand on a bedrock of sound institutions, the rule of law and the free enterprise system. Our highly skilled citizens work hard and will rebound once this virus abates -- which will happen as long as we stand firm now and do not look for easy answers or quick fixes.

Getting back to normal cannot and will not happen by decree. It will only happen after the virus has been starved of human hosts and human victims. It’s not about days on a calendar. It’s about tens of thousands of lives in the balance. It’s about families and the people we love.

Meanwhile, the president and Congress are correctly taking action to help working people weather the storm. To get from here to there. To offer financial assistance to hospitals, first responders, working families, and small businesses. 

Prior generations of Americans faced long odds and tough challenges. They can be examples to us now. We’ll get through this. Stay the course. 

Ron Maxwell wrote & directed the movie GETTYSBURG.  He resides in Rappahannock County, VA

If you experience technical problems, please write to