The history of the United States is a history of overcoming disease. Deadly infectious diseases were once common in the U.S., until science conquered them. In today’s crisis, it’s worth recalling those celebrated victories.
The impact of disease on American history is a remarkably understudied subject. Textbooks give it short shrift in comparison to political, military, diplomatic and economic affairs, but the catalog of key episodes is long. We must not forget that the European conquest and settlement of the Americas were largely dependent on the deadly diseases the settlers brought; or that the grand plan of the Continental Congress to conquer Quebec in 1775 was halted, in large part, by a fearful smallpox outbreak among the troops; or that more American soldiers died from influenza during World War I than from battle wounds, in a pandemic that killed upward of 50 million people.
Many wonder as well about the new dangers unleashed by globalization. Germs travel, and the consequences can be severe. But that’s the way it’s been for centuries, at an admittedly slower pace. Yellow fever and malaria came to North America from Africa; cholera and typhus rode the steamers and “coffin ships” that discharged immigrant cargo at our shores. History assures us that Covid-19 will be conquered by science and that another virus, originating in a bat cave, a pig farm or an open-air poultry market somewhere in the world, will rise up to take its place. That’s the nature of the beast.
In times like this, when anxiety turns so easily to fear, it sometimes helps to focus upon an optimistic vision of the future. For me, it’s the image of a war hero turned president tearfully thanking a selfless researcher for helping to save the children of the world.Read more...