What to make of the coronavirus

Is coronavirus an epidemic, or a pandemic?  The names help give possible answers. An epidemic is something that is “visited upon’” a lot of people, because ‘upon’ is what ‘epi’ signifies in Greek. In the same language, ‘pan’ means “all” – or at least “nearly all” people. 

But which are we experiencing now?  Nobody seems yet to have used that second, horrifying word. But it may not be necessary to say anything out loud…

After World War I, our soldier boys came back to America, bringing with them influenza – the dreaded disease that began in Spain and, according to historic records, infected about a third of our planet’s population at the time, killing somewhere between 20 million and 50 million. Almost 700,000 Americans were among its victims. 

That was definitely a pandemic, and my family was among the many who lost at least one member. Ours was my mother’s youngest sister, Ida, a child of 3. All the hospitals were filled to overflowing, but my grandfather was able to gain admission for her. Still, she died. When he went to pick up her body for burial, there was a dead baby lying next to her; nobody knew who had brought him in, the assumption being that he’d been admitted with his parents, who most certainly had also died. Nobody had time to keep such records during that crisis. 

Zeyde took the baby with his daughter to the cemetery for burial, but there were no gravediggers; the job was his own. That is how a nameless child came to share a small coffin with the aunt I never met; both are remembered yearly on the date of their burial, since their actual death days were never confirmed.

That was bad. But does this new virus have the possibility for being even worse?  For causing even more deaths in a world population grown so much larger over the past century? 

Long ago, I heard a theory that there are ways — devised by nature or perhaps even G-d — that reduce populations grown too large, which also work for a time to control the extent of future growth. Epidemics and pandemics are among these, and so are wars. Many fewer “doughboys” came marching home a century ago after what was named, with great but impossible hope, as “the war to end all wars.” They had left many comrades behind; what they bought home with them instead was disease.

Medicine has come such a long way in the years since, but populations have grown along with it. Turn on your TV virtually any evening; if you watch long enough, you’ll see a sorrowful commercial begging for “only $19 a month – less than 35 cents a day” to save starving children in underdeveloped parts of our world that are also without drinkable water along with food shortages. Pictures of the children are heartbreaking, but the looming question is this: how many of them could now be saved, even with many immediate donations, if the Coronavirus continues its merry romp across our entire earth? 

I myself am choosing to call the current outbreak a pandemic, because I truly believe that, like the flu of a hundred years ago, it will eventually end on its own — with as little known reason for its death as there was for its birth. My prediction, which I offer while knowing that it’s worth nothing to give it true validity, is that this virus will simply run its course, something subject to factors we humans know far too little about. 

Record-keeping of pandemics began with a plague of unknown cause in the year 165 on today’s calendar, killing 5 million. The bubonic plague struck a half-century later, then returned in the mid-1300s as “The Black Death,” with 200 million lives lost. Cholera and influenza have been the culprits up until now, but a deadly new “player” seems to have arrived on the scene. We can only wait. But let us pray…

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