DANIEL VAUGHAN: The coronavirus bursts our illusion of control

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve either remarked to someone or had a person tell me — pre-mandatory shutdown era, of course — how crazy this entire situation is.

We’re obviously in the middle of a unique moment in American history; we’ve shut down the whole economy to deal with an infectious disease from another country. People are going to write books about all this. And yet, I do wonder, should this be shocking at all?

I don’t mean the complete economic shutdown — what we’re witnessing is a historical first, and that’s astonishing. A total and global economic shutdown has never been attempted in human history, even during the greatest of plagues to haunt humanity.

No, what I’m pointing toward is the very existence of an infectious disease in modern times. We shouldn’t be shocked by that; for all recorded history, plague and pestilence have been an overarching concern for everyone.

But not us. Not the modern age. We conquered all the infectious diseases — or so we thought. Modern medical science eradicated diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles (though some people haven’t learned this one). We view ourselves as different, as living in a different stage of human development.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) certainly believed this. In the 1970s they began getting rid of quarantine camps, places where we used to segregate people with highly infectious diseases from the rest of the population. These camps were highly effective.

Fifty-five such camps were located across the United States in the ’70s. The CDC reduced that number to eight because “infectious diseases were thought to be a thing of the past.”

Mind you, we’d only had widespread vaccine use for a few decades by that point. Some people carry the scars of the pre-vaccine past — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) still feels the effects of his left leg being partially paralyzed from polio.

The point is, we believe we have obtained some level of total control over our environment. Sure, we see the occasional stories about so-called “super-bugs” that could end up immune to our anti-bacterial defenses. But these are touted as some form of nefarious bacteria, like super-villains, that we will have to battle at a future date.

We still believe and plan in the modern world that we don’t have to worry about an infectious disease like our ancestors — which is why the coronavirus experience is alien to us. We’ve forgotten what our ancestors lived with every day.

When the Spanish Flu hit in 1918, it was one of many infectious diseases ravaging the Earth. What made it particularly lethal is that it hit during World War I, when troops were shuttling around the world. For the first time in human history, we made a virus even more spreadable than ever before, because we sent the sick from the front lines back to base, allowing more spread.

We’ve since learned, with vaccines, treatments, and quarantines, that we can halt the spread of nearly any viral disease. But even with that, we still believe in our control over the environment. And for a good reason. The current generation is the first one, up until this point, to not know any widespread infectious disease as the norm. All previous generations of Americans had to deal with disease as a part of everyday life.

Parents had to plan in prior generations to have a few “extra” kids because you could lose a few to childbirth complications or childhood diseases. The survival of the human race depended on having more children just to hit break-even points. The entire baby boom generation is as much about the medical revolution that helped begin eliminating infectious disease as it is about post-war sentiment.

But COVID-19 has shattered our illusion of control. Part of the decision to reopen the economy involves making people feel like the government has control. The freak-outs we’ve witnessed, whether in media coverage or in individual actions that have created toilet paper shortages, among other things, have caused the panics everyone has witnessed. People are shrinking inward toward their own personal worlds — not just quarantining, but attempting to control something in this situation.

Whether or not we do actually have any control over the modern world is up for debate again. We like to believe we’re masters of the Earth, and maybe the universe and can survive anything but the most catastrophic events. But a microscopic virus has reminded us of our own fragility and humbled us. We can be terrified of something that we can’t see, isn’t alive, and gets around all our attempts to control it.

Perhaps at the end of this, we’ll use this event as a reminder that things, like infectious diseases, are never behind us. We should always maintain some base level of preparedness that never goes away, no matter what the medical elites believe. Staying humble and prepared is a better plan than getting prideful in our capacity to control nature.

Michael Crichton had a point when he wrote, “Life finds a way, ” in Jurassic Park. Pride caused the dinosaurs to win in that novel. We should take similar lessons from COVID-19. Infectious disease like nothing more than a prideful belief in total control.