There is no shortage of diseases in the world that regularly sicken or kill people. Diseases like Malaria, for example, continue to threaten people throughout the world and particularly in the global south. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the threat of communicable disease was simply part of everyday life. So prominent was disease in our lives that it has a special place in our myths, often presented as the wrath of angry gods. It even gets its a mention in the biblical prophesies of Revelations.

But today, communicable diseases, particularly in the privileged west, are largely seen as distant and manageable risks. Few go through their daily lives worried that they might be exposed to some deadly pathogen that might kill them or their friends or family.

Contrast this with the case of Smallpox. Just 400 years ago, to manage the disease, people in Asia and the Middle East developed the technique of variolation. Those practicing variolation would take the scabs or fluid from the pustules of the infected and would rub it into scratches on the skin of the well, in the hopes of triggering a minor infection that would impart immunity.

Imagine that! Imagine being so afraid of a disease that you’d scratch yourself and rub someone else’s pus into the wound.

It’s truly hard to fathom.

But such was the world before antibiotics and vaccinations, when communicable disease felled entire communities. Smallpox itself is thought to have killed between 300 and 500 million people before its eradication in the late 1970s1.

The dual miracles of antibiotics and vaccination have made for a far far safer world. Yet it’s this very fact that has left so many of us so unprepared for the realities of a pandemic.

This past year I turned 42. This puts me right in that microgeneration between Generation X and the Millenials. I was born the year that Smallpox was declared eradicated in the world. Diseases like Polio and Measles are at best remote and not worth worrying about. The almighty Flu can be tamed with a yearly vaccine that’s safe and reasonably effective. Even the fear of the HIV pandemic, easily one of the most frightening diseases to emerge during my life, was muted by the time I was of the age to consider such things2.

All of this is to say that many of those in their mid-forties or younger–particularly those in the privileged west–have never lived in a world where communicable disease was an active threat. Oh sure, there was SARS and MERS and Swine Flu, but those diseases never emerged as a true pandemic.

So unfamiliar are we with the threat of these diseases that entire movements have grown to resist vaccination. While these movements are built on a complex foundation, part of that bedrock is a lack of understanding of just how dangerous communicable diseases can be, as many have never lived in a world where disease was something to truly fear.

And so COVID-19 has come to a generation completely unprepared for a world in which you have to grapple with the existence of a highly virulent, contagious, airborne virus.

The virus forces us to rethink our place in the world. It both puts us in the very center–our individual actions can have ripple effects in our communities as the virus spreads from person to person–while also reminding us how small each of us is. We are both faced with the message that we are individually responsible for the safety of ourselves and others, while at the same time powers outside of our control are imposing upon us new rules that govern our societies.

Remarkably, during the 1970s and 1980s, a period when medical technology was wielded by communities and governments around the world to tame diseases that had threatened lives and livelihoods for centuries, we began to hear a constant drumbeat that it was those very governments that in fact we should fear. Those in power told us that a government that was there to help was a government to be distrusted. We were told that it was in fact the individual that was paramount, sacrosanct, inviolable. That any form of collectivism–whether it was government, or unions, or cooperatives, or god forbid, communists–was in fact the greatest threat in modern times.

And so we face COVID in a time when not only are we unprepared to deal with a pandemic, we have been primed over the last forty years to believe that the most powerful tools we have to manage COVID–the collective action of communities, governments, and institutions armed with powerful technologies–are the very things we should fear the most.

Why, then, should we be surprised by the rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories? The resistance to mask mandates? The fear of vaccination?

The great question will be: what happens next?

COVID will eventually become endemic. Already we have powerful vaccines that reduce the risks of transmission while muting the dangers of the virus. The ability of healthcare workers to treat the disease has become increasingly effective. Finally, the rise of powerful new therapeutics–monoclonal antibodies, antivirals, and so forth–will turn COVID from a formless, omnipresent threat to a manageable fear.

But what will happen to us?

I want to believe that we’ll develop a new sense of duty to one another. That, for many, this will be a time when we recognize that we are not simply individuals but members of a community, and that we owe a responsibility to one another.

But I can’t say I’m that optimistic.

Alright, and that has been the first in what has already proven to be a very cheerful installment of Blogging for the Holidays! I… think I might aim for something a little lighter tomorrow…


  2. By the time I was old enough to worry about HIV, we’d fortunately come to understand its mode of transmission (sex) and effective methods of prevention (condoms), turning it from an unknown fear to a manageable risk. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like in New York during the early 80s when even the mode of transmission of the disease was unknown…