Microbes are changing our lives, our economy, our culture. You should know — though it will provide no consolation — that it has ever been thus.
Perhaps you assumed that the ability of pestilence to transform the course of history was … well, history, in the sense that modern science, modern public health systems, and such modern bureaucracies as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization would show those nasty little germs who’s boss.
The Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, the most severe in recorded history, only confirmed such overconfidence. In the end, there were just two deaths from the disease on American soil, and both victims had been in West Africa where the virus originated.
West Africa, by the way, provides proof that germs are not equal opportunity killers. Europeans venturing into the sultry interior in the 19th century had little resistance to the diseases they encountered, and the region became known as the “White Man’s Grave.” A few centuries earlier, in the Americas, the opposite had been the case. The indigenous population lacked immunities to diseases brought by European ships, sailors and conquistadors.
We say we’re fighting a war against the coronavirus, but it might be more accurate to say the coronavirus is waging a war against us. Why does it hate us?
In 1935, Hans Zinsser offered an answer: “There is probably as little conscious cruelty in the lion that devours a missionary as there is in the kind-hearted old gentleman who dines upon a chicken pie, or in the staphylococcus that is raising a boil on the old gentleman’s neck.”
Dr. Zinsser was an extraordinary character: Physician, bacteriologist, teacher, poet, and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He is most famous for “Rats, Lice and History,” a landmark volume on the impact pathogens have had on mankind.
He was fascinated by the “ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and waylay us in our food and drink and even in our love.”
He took particular interest in the role microbes play in armed conflicts, concluding that winning wars is “75% an engineering and sanitary problem, and less than 25% a military one.”
The louse-born typhus virus “certainly helped” the Allies win the Great War. Not least, it ravaged Serbia making it “unsafe for the Central Powers to send armies into that country in 1915.” In 1918, as that conflict was ending, the Spanish flu broke out, killing more American soldiers than had bullets and bombs.
Rome was not destroyed in a day, nor by a single cause, but the empire’s sophisticated system of roads enabled the Black Death “to sweep across the entire world, like flames through dry grass, finding fuel wherever men lived, following trade routes by land and carried over the sea in ships.”
Dr. Zinsser wasn’t the first to appreciate the power of invisible enemies. In 431 B.C., Thucydides wrote his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” in which he described the plague of Athens, featuring “the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep.”
“A Journal of the Plague Year,” written in 1722 by Daniel Defoe, chronicled the devastation the Bubonic plague brought to London in 1665. Then, as now, people were desperate to know whether the disease had peaked. We consult computer models. They consulted Weekly Bills of Mortality.
If you refer to the pathogen now circling the globe as the Wuhan virus, enforcers of progressive orthodoxy will call you a racist. But naming a disease for the place it originated is a longstanding practice. If I talk about Lyme disease, do I offend the proud people of Connecticut?
Though the proud peoples of China bear no blame for the pandemic, the same cannot be said of Xi Jinping.
He and his Communist Party have been neither transparent nor honest about how the pandemic started and spread. American scientists have told The Washington Times that they are not getting the cooperation they need to develop treatments and vaccines quickly.
The dominant theory has been that the virus came from Wuhan, more precisely from a “wet market” where wild animals are sold for food. It does seem odd that Chinese authorities, who have been developing the means to closely monitor and regulate the behavior of more than a billion subjects, would fail to adequately regulate such markets.
As also reported in The Washington Times, two Chinese scientists have posited in an unofficial paper posted online “that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory near the market.”
You do have to wonder: Is it just coincidence that a stone’s throw from the Wuhan market are the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control & Prevention? The former, China’s only high-security virus research center, was known to be researching viruses from bats and other rodents prior to the pandemic.
Whatever the truth, the trajectory of world history has been altered. We can guess what lies ahead but we don’t know. And the uncertainty is driving us a little crazy, don’t you think?
One change we’d be fools not to make: Our dependence on China’s Communist rulers — allowing them to control strategic supply chains and manipulate the World Health Organization — must end.
Do Chinese Communists hate us? Maybe, maybe not. But like lions, kind-hearted old gentlemen, and staphylococci, they have appetites. If we look like food, we should expect to get eaten. It has ever been thus.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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