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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

‘Pestilence’ Throughout Our History

By DAVID STEELE FIGUEREDO I was privileged to be a teenager in the 1950s. It was a period of profound change not unlike our current COVID-19 journey through uncharted economic and social waters. In taking a moment to chronicle world history as an optimist, I remind students, faculty and staff at Woodbury University, where I serve as president, that humanity has been through some horrible times and we shall put the novel coronavirus epidemic behind us as well. Let’s remember a few historical facts: • The polio viral vaccine was developed in 1955 by Jonas Salk. Polio was a contagious scourge of humanity that predates recorded history. • The nuclear arms race started in 1952 with the first hydrogen bomb test by the United States, followed by the USSR in 1953. It was, and still is, the largest threat to human existence. • The United States and USSR rose to superpower status in the 1950s and Germany and Japan recovered miraculously from the ashes of World War II. Concurrently, there was a precipitous fall of the British Empire after economic exhaustion by two World Wars. • The launch by the USSR of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 by an intercontinental ballistic missile was a shock to the world. It intensified the arms race between the U.S. and USSR and further raised Cold War tensions. I was fortunate to be educated in the British system at a time that the classics, economics, science and world history were the platforms of higher education. Specifically, Latin was required as an entrance requirement to university until 1960, and Ancient Greek was highly encouraged. This gave me a perspective going back to the teachings of the Greeks and Romans, and the role of what was then called “pestilence” in the rise and fall of nations. I became fascinated with the second and first centuries B.C. when the two superpowers were the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty in China: two countries and civilizations at the two ends of the world. In H.G. Wells’ “A Short History of the World” published in 1922, he described that “China at this time was the greatest, best organized and most civilized political system in the world. It was superior in area and population to the Roman Empire at its zenith. The pestilence raged in China for 11 years and disorganized the social framework profoundly.” The infection spread through Asia to Europe, even though travel was by camel caravans and coastal shipping. It later ravaged the Roman Empire over two decades, weakened central control, and depopulated the Roman provinces.     Then there was the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century that had profound impacts on the course of European history. Later the Black Death bubonic plague in Eurasia and North Africa in the 14th century ravaged economies and social institutions and killed 100-200 million people, followed by a second pandemic of bubonic plague that lasted until 1750. These plagues were probably the most fatal diseases in recorded history, creating social and economic upheavals. The damage to humanity was worse than the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century.  The good news is that the science of pandemics and the faster development of viral vaccines has been a miracle of the 20th and 21st centuries. The scientific reaction to recent viral diseases – the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks in 2002 and 2012, and the more recent Ebola viral outbreak – give us hope that a vaccine and other treatments for the novel coronavirus are on the horizon. Viral science has advanced dramatically compared to the 150 plus years it took to develop the polio vaccine. Our challenge as a species is that we have suffered a historical toxic mixture, over millennia, of wars, disease and nationalism. Sadly, our leaders have not yet learned from our historical mistakes. For example, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 from present-day Poland and his troops were defeated by winter cold, disease, and the resilience of the Russian people. Yet Hitler tried this strategy again more than 100 years later to suffer a similar fate. We, in the United States, have now been at war in Afghanistan for over 18 years while the USSR tried and failed after 9 years to conquer that nation.   Perhaps our greatest challenge will be to plan for a future where the major religious populations of the world – about 30 percent Christianity, 24 percent Islam, 14 percent Hinduism, 7 percent Buddhism and the other 25 percent of various additional religions or who are unaffiliated – come together to fight the current pandemic and the economic upheavals that will result in severe social and racial dislocations, especially in poorer countries with weak public health systems. So, let’s relearn the lessons of history and avoid sectarian struggles, social paranoia, and especially the temptation to wage wars. Otherwise, an invisible virus may change the relatively stable, by historical standards, world balance of power in the 21st century, severely impacting the comfortable lifestyle and freedoms that many of us in the United States have taken for granted. And let’s not forget Albert Camus’ literary masterpiece “The Plague” written in 1947. It described the consequences of a public health and economic crisis, eerily foretelling the current novel coronavirus pandemic.   David Steele Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank.

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