COVID-19 perspective: Imagine you were born in 1900

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 may well be remembered not for the deaths it caused, but for the pandemonium it created.  It's been a century since a virus has caused so much mayhem.  However, it wasn't so much the virus this time as our reaction to it that has caused so many problems.  In times when emotions are running high, it's easy to lose perspective and react instead of acting.  Luckily, we only need to look back at history to realign our perspective.

For instance, imagine for a moment you born in the year 1900 in the United States.  What would your life have been like?

You were born at a time of great social and economic transformations in the United States.  All seems to be going well until at the age of 14, World War I begins and lasts until you are 18 years old.  By the time it's over, an estimated 37 million people have died in total, including 116,708 of your fellow Americans.  Thankfully, you're still alive, but you might have lost friends and relatives in the conflict.

No sooner is World War I over when the world is struck by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.  By the time you're 20, it has killed 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide.  Maybe you managed to survive the Spanish Flu, but you're far from safe.  There's still a myriad of diseases and viruses out there with no cure or treatment, including polio, scarlet fever, and diphtheria.  It would be another eight years before penicillin was even discovered.

By the Roaring Twenties, the worst seems to be behind you, or so you thought.  The Great Depression begins when you are 29 years of age and lasts for 10 long years.  At its peak, unemployment reaches 25%, and the GDP falls 30%.  You spend many days standing in long soup lines just to get something to eat.

At 39 years old, when you think things couldn't get any worse, World War II starts.  In 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the United States is dragged into the conflict.  When you're 45, the war is over.  All total, 70–85 million people have died, and of those 416,800 Americans.  It would be the deadliest war in history, killing 3% of the world's population.  Unfortunately, peace doesn't last.  When you're 50, the Korean War starts and kills another 40,000 Americans and causes 5 million deaths in all.  It lasts three years.  As soon as the Korean War is over, another war begins.  When you're 55, the Vietnam War starts and lasts 20 years.  That conflict will kill 1.3 million people in total and an estimated 47,434 Americans.

At the age of 57, you witness another pandemic.  The Asian Flu kills 1 to 2 million worldwide and 116,000 in the U.S.  When you're 68, the third influenza pandemic of the 20th century occurs.  The Hong Kong Flu kills 1 million worldwide and 100,000 in the U.S.  When you're 81, there is a brand new virus to contend with that's never been seen before called HIV-AIDS.  It will kill hundreds of thousands in the US alone.  All the while, you have been living in the Cold War for the past 36 years with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation looming over your head.

And this was life in the 20th century.  In the words of Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  There were plenty of things to be fearful of in the 20th century, yet it didn't prevent people from living their lives.

The truth is, the world is and has always been a perilous place to live, and nobody is promised tomorrow.  That doesn't mean we have to cower in fear at the prospect of sudden and imminent death.  I am reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis.  In 1948, he penned an essay entitled "On Living in an Atomic Age."  If we take a quote from this essay and modify it slightly, it fits our current situation perfectly:

"In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.  Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID-19 was discovered: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.  We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors — anesthetics; but we have that still.  It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because COVID-19 has added one more chance of a painful and premature death to a world that already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 may well be remembered not for the deaths it caused, but for the pandemonium it created.  It's been a century since a virus has caused so much mayhem.  However, it wasn't so much the virus this time as our reaction to it that has caused so many problems.  In times when emotions are running high, it's easy to lose perspective and react instead of acting.  Luckily, we only need to look back at history to realign our perspective.

For instance, imagine for a moment you born in the year 1900 in the United States.  What would your life have been like?

You were born at a time of great social and economic transformations in the United States.  All seems to be going well until at the age of 14, World War I begins and lasts until you are 18 years old.  By the time it's over, an estimated 37 million people have died in total, including 116,708 of your fellow Americans.  Thankfully, you're still alive, but you might have lost friends and relatives in the conflict.

No sooner is World War I over when the world is struck by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.  By the time you're 20, it has killed 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide.  Maybe you managed to survive the Spanish Flu, but you're far from safe.  There's still a myriad of diseases and viruses out there with no cure or treatment, including polio, scarlet fever, and diphtheria.  It would be another eight years before penicillin was even discovered.

By the Roaring Twenties, the worst seems to be behind you, or so you thought.  The Great Depression begins when you are 29 years of age and lasts for 10 long years.  At its peak, unemployment reaches 25%, and the GDP falls 30%.  You spend many days standing in long soup lines just to get something to eat.

At 39 years old, when you think things couldn't get any worse, World War II starts.  In 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the United States is dragged into the conflict.  When you're 45, the war is over.  All total, 70–85 million people have died, and of those 416,800 Americans.  It would be the deadliest war in history, killing 3% of the world's population.  Unfortunately, peace doesn't last.  When you're 50, the Korean War starts and kills another 40,000 Americans and causes 5 million deaths in all.  It lasts three years.  As soon as the Korean War is over, another war begins.  When you're 55, the Vietnam War starts and lasts 20 years.  That conflict will kill 1.3 million people in total and an estimated 47,434 Americans.

At the age of 57, you witness another pandemic.  The Asian Flu kills 1 to 2 million worldwide and 116,000 in the U.S.  When you're 68, the third influenza pandemic of the 20th century occurs.  The Hong Kong Flu kills 1 million worldwide and 100,000 in the U.S.  When you're 81, there is a brand new virus to contend with that's never been seen before called HIV-AIDS.  It will kill hundreds of thousands in the US alone.  All the while, you have been living in the Cold War for the past 36 years with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation looming over your head.

And this was life in the 20th century.  In the words of Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  There were plenty of things to be fearful of in the 20th century, yet it didn't prevent people from living their lives.

The truth is, the world is and has always been a perilous place to live, and nobody is promised tomorrow.  That doesn't mean we have to cower in fear at the prospect of sudden and imminent death.  I am reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis.  In 1948, he penned an essay entitled "On Living in an Atomic Age."  If we take a quote from this essay and modify it slightly, it fits our current situation perfectly:

"In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.  Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID-19 was discovered: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.  We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors — anesthetics; but we have that still.  It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because COVID-19 has added one more chance of a painful and premature death to a world that already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.