Why epidemics will not kill by the millions anymore

Robert Labayen

Posted at May 12 2020 12:34 AM


Lessons from our mistakes will make more people live.

Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor who first sounded the alarm over coronavirus and was reprimanded by the government, is not alone.

In 1846, many women in a maternity clinic in Vienna were dying from a disease they called “childbed fever.” They didn’t know the real cause because they didn’t have a concept of germs at that time. Young Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis’s observations made him identify the cause of death. It was the student doctors who did not wash their hands before delivering the babies of the women who died. Such doctors just came from dissecting cadavers and Dr. Semmelweis said they infected the women with “little pieces of corpse”.

Semmelweis died mentally ill and still rejected by the medical community because doctors didn’t like to be blamed for the women’s death.

Dr. John Snow was also ignored after 27 years of trying to prove that England’s infamous cholera epidemics were caused by germs in the drinking water. It was already 1858 yet English health authorities still believed in the miasma theory of disease which started with the Greeks and Romans as early as 400 years Before Christ!

In 2006, Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped defeat the mega killer smallpox, warned the world about a viral pandemic. In 2015, the same warning was echoed by Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and advocate of eradicating malaria. In 2019, the project Crimson Contagion reported how and why the United States was not prepared for a pandemic. But nothing much happened after their recommendations were elevated to higher authorities.

These stories remind me of the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s story An Enemy of the People. Dr. Stockton bared the contamination of the springs in their town. But not willing to spend municipal funds to fix the problem, the whole town ganged up on him.

Why millions died in old times

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought that illnesses were caused by “miasma,” the stench from swamps. In fact, “malaria” came from the Italian “maal aria” which means bad air. They didn’t know that the epidemics and plagues that decimated populations were caused by bacteria and viruses couriered by rats, fleas, mosquitos, flies, human waste and body fluids.

Early people also had the practice of using human and animal manure as fertilizer. Their germs would find their way to the village’s primitive water system or drill into the skin of people’s bare feet.

In other parts of the world, people believed sickness and death were cause by sorcery, evil spirits or an angry god.

We have become wiser

It was easy to die when people didn’t know what was killing them.

It is a blessing that good men and women of science have already armored us with vaccines, effective medicines, proper care, and proper prevention.

This novel coronavirus was able to ambush us because we didn’t have prior experience of a pandemic of a world-stopping impact. Previous outbreaks like the Ebola, SARS, and MERS-CoV were eventually controlled and confined to certain parts of the world before they affected a person we personally knew. It gave us a false sense of security. We didn’t have a “schema” or a template of how big it could be.

Larry Brilliant said there can be hope from COVID-19 if we will test and test a lot of people like what they are doing in South Korea. He also said that eventually, we will develop “herd immunity.” He envisions a time when a lot of people who have become immune can care for the sick without risk of spreading the disease.

The scale of COVID-19 surely taught us valuable lessons. If superpowers will spend more on health care than on armaments, the world will surely have more cures, more health experts, more masks, more protective gear, and more hospital rooms. It will no longer be difficult for cities to adjust their supply chain. It will be easier to tell people to self-quarantine and to observe social distancing. We will once again be conscious of washing our hands and observing cough etiquette, things that are so simple yet so neglected.

Don McLean in 1970s song Vincent wrote, "Perhaps they'll listen now." So, if we don't have a short memory, I can be optimistic that COVID-19 will be humankind’s last big scare.

Read:

  • Allies and Enemies: How the World Depends on Bacteria by Anne Maczulak
  • Coronavirus Outbreak: A Cascade of Warnings Heard but Unheeded by David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan, and Michael Crowley in The New York Times website
  • Father of Modern Epidemiology by David Vachon in the UCLA website
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  • How Bill Gates warned in 2015 TED Talk that the next big threat to humanity has a “highly infectious virus” that “we are not ready” for in the DailyMail website
  • The Doctor Who Championed Handwashing and Briefly Saved Lives by Rebecca Davis in the NPR website
  • The Doctor Who Helped Defeat Smallpox Explains What’s Coming by Steven Levy in the WIRED website
  • The Mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard
  • Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future by Michael B.A. Oldstone
  • What Our Ancestors Knew in the Lumen website

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.