“The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’”
-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above.”
-Katherine Hepburn, as Rosie Thayer, in The African Queen
The human struggle against viruses resembles Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who has to run ever faster just to remain in the same place. The better defenses we erect against them, the more ingenious will viruses and bacteria become at achieving their chief goal of survival. That’s evolution. That’s nature. But the state of nature, as Rosie Thayer notes in the 1951 movie The African Queen, is what humans have to rise above. That’s civilization. That’s progress.
In the preface to The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio penned an eye-witness account of the plague that befell his beloved city of Florence in 1348:
“The symptoms … began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumors. In a short space of time these tumors spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death…”
“Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety.”
“Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial. … Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full.”
The Decameron contains 100 tales, mostly practical jokes and assorted life lessons, told by seven young women and three young men, who are “self-isolating” in a villa just outside of Florence to escape the Black Death. Hence the book’s alternate name l'Umana commedia (the Human comedy). Running throughout the book is the medieval leitmotif of Lady Fortune. The fate of humanity fluctuates under the extraneous influence of the “Wheel of Fortune.” Life comes and goes, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The best that can be done is to have some fun and laugh at the futility of it all.
That is how humanity saw itself since the dawn of time. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (pestilence, war, famine and death) were omnipresent and omnipotent. The plague that Boccaccio witnessed, to give just one example, is estimated to have killed between 30 percent and 60 percent of all Europeans and reduced the world’s population from about 475 million to between 350 and 375 million.
It may seem insensitive to say so in the midst of a global pandemic, but we have come far since the days of The Decameron. Unlike our ancestors, not to mention non-human animals, modern humans refuse to suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We have, to quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, resolved to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” To that end, our species has eradicated or almost eradicated smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, polio and whooping cough. We have made great progress in our struggle against malaria and HIV/AIDS.
And the speed of our successes is increasing. The earliest credible evidence of smallpox comes from India in 1500 BC. The disease was eradicated in 1980. That’s 3.5 thousand years of suffering. In 1980, we started to learn about HIV/AIDS. By 1995, we had the first generation of drugs that kept infected people alive. That’s 15 years of suffering. The Ebola raged between 2014 and 2016. The first Ebola vaccine was approved in the United States in December 2019. That’s five years of suffering. Last December, the coronavirus did not have a name. Today, human trials for the coronavirus vaccine are underway throughout the world.
There is, in other words, every reason to expect that the current pandemic will be mitigated and, hopefully, ended by reason, science and human ingenuity. That said, this is no place or time for triumphalism. The coronavirus has found humanity napping. Instead of looking out for sudden and exponential dangers, like a virus that natural selection informed us was coming, we spent the last few years arguing over gradual and long-term problems, like global warming.
There is plenty of humble pie to be eaten. In my talks and writings I underestimated the mismatch between the speed of viral infections, like the coronavirus, and the speed of delivering a working vaccine to the infected. I have failed to take into account the immense costs of economic slow-downs and shut-downs. Yet, even these serious mistakes come with a silver lining.
Coronavirus is deadly, but it is not the bubonic plague, which had a mortality rate of 50 percent, or the septicemic plague, which had a mortality rate of 100 percent. Luckily for the long-term wellbeing of our species, we have been re-awakened to the mortal danger posed by communicable diseases by a far milder virus. Once the immediate crisis is behind us, human and financial resources will be deployed by governments and the private sector to ensure that next time we are ready. Laws will be changed and regulations streamlined to ensure that we are nimbler, which is to say faster, in responding to future emergencies.
In the meantime, we must not overreact to the coronavirus pandemic by killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. The global economy will have to change somewhat. Likely, supply lines will shorten and the definition of strategic reserves broaden. A fundamental shift toward autarky, however, would be catastrophic. The global division of labor has enriched the world to an unprecedented degree. It is these riches that allow us to combat coronavirus today. A poorer world would be a sicker world. Let us hope that we have the wisdom to recognize that.