There will be a vaccine, there will be different cures, but it will not be completely eradicated – a model of HIV / AIDS or tuberculosis, the coronavirus epidemic makes this possibility easy to imagine, says a professor of medical history at Yale University in the United States. Naomi Rogers from Connecticut spoke to the Hungarian Nation by phone.
After two months of confinement, life begins to return to the cities of Europe and America. But there are opinions that call for caution, as well as those that say we may never get rid of the coronavirus completely. When can we say: is it over now? What does history say about this?
There is a difference between when an epidemic can be considered medically or socially closed. But from here, at least from the United States, I say it is not clear when it will end from a medical point of view. On the one hand, experts do not agree on this, and on the other hand, from testing to the vaccine, there are still many questionable questions about what technological capabilities we will have to stop the coronavirus epidemic. The most recent major pandemic was HIV / AIDS, which was discovered in the early 1980s and is still not a panacea, although it was hoped for at the time. As a problem it has not been solved, but we already know how to deal with it, the world has learned to live with it. From a social point of view, the end of the current epidemic would be for life to return to its usual wheelbase as it was before the outbreak of Covid-19. But here in the United States, we see some already pretending to be beyond it, while others keep their distance from each other, wearing a face mask. These are two very different behaviors and ideas.
Is it possible that, like HIV / AIDS, Covid-19 will stay with us forever?
It’s not like I want that, but I think it’s very conceivable. It is conceivable that in some places, for example, different practices will develop back and forth, and in the treatment, improvement of the condition of patients and prevention. Think of tuberculosis, for example: there is a vaccine, there are cures, but we have not been able to eradicate this infectious disease. I think if Covid-19 has an eternal lesson, it is to raise awareness that infection is still a very serious problem that needs to be taken seriously. No one is completely safe.
Many people are not afraid of the epidemic, but they are satisfied with its consequences, the restrictions that come with it. Has this been the case in the past?
During the Spanish Fever, for example, in 1918, the Anti-Mask League was formed in San Francisco, whose representatives protested against the fact that they were obliged to cover their faces, citing civil rights. We also know that protracted quarantine can place a terrible burden on a society. It’s hard to stop now that when we look out the window after two months of restraint and the sun shines beautifully, don’t feel overwhelmed by the feeling: I’ve followed every rule, I’ve changed my habits, but now I want to get my life back! We Americans are not united on this either. Not to mention how we react when faced with a strong second wave, as happened with the Spanish flu.
You mentioned the anti-masks. Can you also give historical examples of some people blaming certain peoples for what happened just as much as the Chinese now?
In 1901, bubonic plague infected San Francisco and entered the public consciousness as an Asian disease. Some blamed the Chinese, they wanted to quarantine Chinatown, Chinatown, surrounded by a cordon. There were also whites who caught the disease, but they were considered victims, they did not become scapegoats. People want an explanation to understand what is happening to them, and they are making explanations themselves. In 1916, New York destroyed the poliovirus that led to the epidemic of polio, which developed in a neighborhood inhabited by Italian immigrants. The disease was described as an immigrant disease, with a number of restrictions affecting immigrants. The U.S. embassy in Rome was commissioned to look into such an outbreak in Italy – but it wasn’t.
Are there examples of how pandemics preserve collective memory? For example, when we tell our grandchildren, what was it like when we walked down the street in a mask?
It’s interesting that many times they are forgotten. Today, we refer a lot to Spanish flu, partly because of the masks and partly because it was also a respiratory disease, but at the time it was surprisingly easily forgotten. Partly because they saw it as a continuation of the horrific World War I and wanted to forget the two at the same time – the war and the epidemic. And my students were born at least 12 years after HIV / AIDS was identified. It was also a great epidemic, but for them it is only history, not because of what is heard in the collective memory.
Author: Patricia Brunetto
Patricia Brunetto work at the History of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine.