This week’s The New Yorker Magazine contains a thought-provoking article about ways in which the world may change following the eventual disappearance of Covid-19. The point of the article is that the Black Plague forced survivors to begin relying on science rather than superstition and religion to explain natural calamities like the Black Plague, a pandemic which might have killed as many as two hundred million people before running its course. Because we were forced to think differently in order to overcome the Plague, so perhaps the Covid-19 crisis will also force us to begin thinking in a “new way.”
It’s a clever article, but what brought about the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of what we refer to as the Modern Age was not, as the article claims, the emergence of the Renaissance and the beginning of scientific thought. Those were important developments, but Western society became ‘modern’ because of three technologies – the mariner’s compass, gunpowder, and the printing press.
These three inventions changed the whole structure and dynamic of Western society because they helped to promote the appearance and consolidate the growth of the nation- state. For the first time in Western history, national authorities exercised legal, military, and political power over enormous domains defined by borders, protected by armies, and supported by tax revenues which were imposed, rather than handed over as some kind of gift.
The division of the world’s landscape into independent, nation-states, however, remained largely unfinished until after World War II. Prior to the war, most of the globe was still divided into territories or colonies that were governed or at least under the ‘protection’ of a handful of nation-states. The United Nations counted 50 members when it started up in 1945; the current membership now totals 193.
For the sake of argument, because we’re still not sure, let’s say that Covid-19 actually did first appear in China. Before World War II, Wuhan was located in what was known as the British ‘sphere of influence,’ which basically meant that whatever happened in Wuhan would have gotten back to the U.K.
The current Chinese government, however, is under no official or unofficial requirement to tell anyone outside of China about Covid-19. One of the truly stupid ideas promoted by the Trump gang is that the United States must be sovereign and totally cut off from all foreign involvements of every kind, including membership in health organizations like the WHO. If we have learned anything from the spread of this virus, it is the degree of connectedness which now exists throughout the globe. Of course there are some political leaders who are too dumb to learn anything.
On the other hand, the sharing of scientific data between countries has also given the medical community a rare opportunity to learn how to diagnose and treat a new disease. The last time that American physicians and scientists had to figure out how to deal with a previously unknown infection causing high levels of mortality was in the 1980’s with the appearance of HIV/AIDS, a deadly pathogen which infected 37,968 Americans in 2018 and was responsible for 15,807 deaths in 2016.
For most physicians, having the opportunity to diagnose and treat a new disease is a rare event. And while the clinical situation brought on by this virus has stretched many medical facilities to the brink and beyond, the crisis has also been instrumental in the spread and use of new treatment protocols and new technologies which will in use after the virus subsides.
Guess who was instrumental in helping to figure out how the AIDS virus is transmitted from host to host? It happened to be a young doctor named Anthony Fauci, who was bitterly attacked by the LGBTQ community when he first suggested that the AIDS virus was primarily being spread through unprotected sex between gay men. Trump and his minions aren’t the first bunch to bash Fauci for what he says.
I have 5 grandchildren who I hope will not be sitting in classrooms next month. Better they should drive their parents crazy at home. They won’t be the first kids to drive their parents crazy, that’s for sure.