Pandemics have existed as long as human civilization: ‘There will be another’

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Justinian plague. Credit: Josse Lieferinxe/Walters Art Museum

Famine and war routinely bring civilizations low, but though he trots closely beside those two, the horseman who carries off the most has always been pestilence.

The story of this pandemic is, in many ways, a story about speed. HIV circulated among humans for about six decades before it was noticed. The quickness with which science has identified this new infection and defined the genetic nature of the virus causing it is unprecedented… .

The measure of a plague is the number of people it infects and how seriously it sickens them. The number of people it’s expected to infect multiplied by its mortality rate yields its prospective death toll. And this, naturally, is the question that draws the most attention: How bad is it going to get? How many are going to die? What are the numbers? People seek numbers in times of uncertainty because it feels like they have a solidity about them. A quantified subject is a tamed one, to some extent.

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It might be that that this pandemic will turn out less severe than what is feared; it might be that the winter spike in Wuhan will not be replicated elsewhere. But, even if we contain this virus, there will be another. And this point, that some threats can be faced only collectively, will remain. We have to learn it.

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