Friday, April 10, 2020

NOT Unprecedented

Unprecedented: I guess I've heard that term just one time too many lately. I have to get this off my chest: while it may be incredibly inconvenient for so many of us to put our life on hold for an as-yet undetermined period of time, this is not the first time a disease has put the skids on Life As We Know It.

The catch is: it is the first time, at least within our own memories, that we've had such an experience. But that doesn't mean history is devoid of such examples. And you know what we say about history: those who forget it often find themselves repeating it. (At least, that's what people say Winston Churchill quipped as a paraphrase of George Santayana—although, for those who actually check out their history, he apparently said no such thing, according to this post from the National Churchill Museum on November 16, 2012.)

Of course, we have had influenza epidemics before, but they mostly have been out of reach of the natural life span of all but the most advanced centenarians among us. How can we "remember" something like that type of experience, other than through reading old newspaper reports as the event unfolded, as my favorite professional genealogist recently did in researching the 1918 Spanish flu as it came sweeping through our own county.

There have been other epidemics, of course—almost all of them just as devastating as the experts warned people they would be. We can reach back through history to see example after example after example. After all, what we call a pandemic today, people labeled as epidemic in the past—a modern way to describe what, in biblical terms, would have been called a plague.

And when we remember that, for many people worldwide engaging this week in the traditional celebration called Passover, they are also calling to mind the many plagues preceding their people's ancient migration to their promised land of Israel. Those who observe Passover now still keep those plagues in mind—especially this year, as we all shelter in place, even over the holidays.

If there is anything that can be called "unprecedented" about this current worldwide variety of devastating illness, it is the blessing in disguise of being able to electronically keep in "touch" even during this time of touchlessness. It is also our ability to model worst case scenarios and predict how we can moderate the human response to the threat of this serious illness. And it is our world's lightning-fast response, through—yes, I'll say it here—unprecedented sharing of up-to-the-minute research on the DNA and mutation of our infinitesimally tiny enemy so that the top minds in multi-disciplinary science teams can come up with desperately needed answers as fast as possible.

Usually, when people engage in that wearying use of the term, unprecedented, they do it with a negative spin to their rhetoric: "It's unprecedented, and it's horrible."

I find it to be entirely the opposite: it's unprecedented because of all the new ways we now have to engage the enemy productively. And for that, I take heart. 


  1. What a positive way to view the "big-picture" importance of what is going on. And you are so right. It is amazing (to use another overworked but useful descriptor) - it is amazing to watch in real-time this world-wide digital response to a plague. Will we be able to mobilize an effective response to the economic devastation as quickly as we have the physical pandemic?

    Speaking of the 1918 flu, we weren't alive then, but doesn't it feel like we were? Both of my father's parents died, leaving four tiny children - and the reverberations still affect my family. Same with the Great Depression. Sometimes I think the excesses of the later generations were a reaction to their parents' constant refrain, "No, we can't spend money. You don't know what it was like to grow up in the depression."

    1. That's an interesting point, Lisa, about how the impact of a devastating era echoes through subsequent generations. I'm sure that is what will happen as we go through this present crisis, as well.

      With the count of deaths escalating into the realm of nearly-unbelievable numbers, it sometimes can be hard to realize the humanity behind every single one of those deaths. Each loss leaves behind an insurmountable gap for those who loved that person and depended on him or her. I think we lose that sense in the expanse of those statistics.


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