I grew up in an era when nearly all children got a series of diseases that are now mostly distant memories. The vast majority of us survived, unlike in previous periods:

Before the Modern Revolution child mortality was very high in all societies that we have knowledge of – a quarter of all children died in the first year of life, almost half died before reaching the end of puberty

Hundreds of years ago, even royalty was not immune. Look at the record of the children of Peter the Great, for example. It’s horrific. It’s also one of many reasons people tried to have as many children as possible, although a lot of women died in childbirth or shortly after. That was another terrible risk that was common in prior eras. What earlier generations had to endure in the way of sickness and death was hard for most of us to even imagine.

It was much better when I was growing up. But still, in a few short years and while a toddler I had measles, mumps, rubella (then commonly called “German measles”), and chickenpox, and that’s just the diseases I remember having. Polio was rather common, too, although a vaccine came along when I was a very young child. That event was a big big deal, and Salk was considered a hero.

My only cousin had developed measles encephalitis when I was about two, and died a few years later of complications from it. I remember his death very very well and his disabilities too. That’s the sort of thing that makes a deep impression on a child. Another couple who were good friends of my parents had lost a child from measles even before I was born. I heard my parents talk about that, too.

No one had to impress on me the seriousness of measles. I knew. And polio? We saw the photos of all those kids in the iron lungs, and we knew children walking around with braces on their legs.

It’s a beautiful thing that the incidence of most of those diseases has gone way down, a significant reduction in human suffering and loss, and that most people alive in the US today lack personal experience of them. But there’s been a cost, too. It includes the increasing decline of our psyches’ ability to withstand and endure the possibility of an increase in disease and mortality that mirrors even the relatively modest amount that my generation experienced.

Of course, I wasn’t around for the 1918 flu pandemic, and I wasn’t around when smallpox and tuberculosis or the Black Death killed a far higher percentage of the people then living on earth than any of the plagues of my life have come close to killing. I cannot even imagine how terrible those things were; I don’t also want to imagine. And I doubt that people of the time took them in stride at all. I think a good part of the dread and fear now is that in the back of our minds – or for some people, even the front of our minds – we know that such catastrophes are still possible. Human beings know they are intensely vulnerable, and when we become afraid, we can visualize that chasm looming before us.

But COVID-19 is not shaping up to be that sort of magnitude event (the Black Death is estimated to have killed between 30 and 60 percent of the population of Europe, for example), and there’s no reason to think it will be. However, although many measures are prudent – handwashing increased testing, hospital preparedness, some means of social distancing at least for a while – the degree of fear I see and hear is far higher than anything I can recall in my life around medical events that probably killed at least as many people as this one is likely to do.

As Clark Whelton, the author of this City Journal essay entitled “Say Your Prayers and Take Your Chances: Remembering the 1957 Asian flu pandemic,” writes:

It’s not that Asian flu—the second influenza pandemic of the twentieth century—wasn’t a serious disease. Worldwide, this flu strain killed somewhere between 1 and 2 million people. More than 100,000 died in the U.S. alone. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, governors did not call out the National Guard, and political panic-mongers did not blame it all on President Eisenhower. College sports events were not cancelled, planes and trains continued to run, and Americans did not regard one another with fear and suspicion, touching elbows instead of hands. We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.

Today, I look back and wonder if an oblivious America faced the 1957 plague with a kind of clueless folly. Why weren’t we more active in fighting this contagion? Could stricter quarantine procedures have reduced the rate of infection and lowered the death toll? In short, why weren’t we more afraid?

It’s a good question, and he answers that back then, we were more used to infectious diseases. But a result of that is that we would have had to have closed down shop indefinitely because there were so many infectious illnesses around all the time that there was no way to escape. You might say we were fatalistic. You might say we were resigned. You might say we were stupid. You might say we assumed the risk, or you might say we understood there were also drawbacks to that sort of reaction.

Right now, we are trying to err on the side of caution, hoping to avert a situation such as that Italy is facing, or worse. Time is of the essence. But we are also balancing that with the economic risks of such a shutdown, especially if prolonged. The idea is that not shutting down this way would have a significant chance of leading to even higher risks later on than shutting down and that some pain now will prevent even more significant pain then.

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]


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