Think COVID-19 is bad? Let’s try some time travel.

In the autumn of 1347, a fleet of Genoese galleys sailed into the Sicilian harbor of Messina. They were greeted by local customs officials who found, to their horror, that most of the crews on board were dead, or dying. A Franciscan Friar wrote: “The sailors brought in their bones a disease so violent that whoever spoke a word to them was infected and could in no way save himself from death.

It was Europe’s second encounter with the bacterium, Yersinia Pestis, AKA Bubonic Plague, the Black Death. The disease had been endemic among rodent populations in the Middle East and Asia. It was spread by fleas, and given the deplorable sanitation of that era, it easily made the jump to humans and rolled across Europe and North Africa killing hundreds of thousands.

The economic and social order fell apart. Labor shortages left crops rotting in the fields. Feudal society, already under stress from the economic challenges of a rising merchant class, could no longer sustain itself. An Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun, wrote that “cities and buildings were laid waste, roads were obliterated, settlements and mansions emptied. The entire inhabited world changed.” Those changes facilitated the coming of the Renaissance and Reformation, invention, the printing press, and the spread of learning.

In 165 AD the Roman world, then at the peak of its glory, under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was struck down by the Antonine Plague, believed to be Smallpox. In 250 it was visited by the Plague of Cyprian, an Ebola like disease which, at its peak killed upwards of 5,000 people per week in the city of Rome. The devastation stretched across the third century causing some historians to believe that it led to the fall of the Empire in the West. In 541 came the Plague of Justinian, the first appearance of the Black Death. It would return in 800, as the Plague of Naples, and, again, in 1348. The last large outbreak came to London in 1650.

In our own era, there was the Spanish Flu that tore through our country and the world in the wake of World War I.

When will we ever learn?

The question comes to mind every time I hear a White House pronouncement that COVID will go away, or read that 250,000 bikers are headed for Sturgis, South Dakota to swill beer and hang out with their ilk — worse, that the South Dakota governor did nothing to stop it or, at a minimum, order the wearing of masks. It’s predicted that 300,000 people could die from COVID by December. The gathering at Sturgis will spread it, and make it worse.

Is it ignorance, incompetence, or selfish-indifference?

We had no understanding of “germ theory” until the work of Louis Pasteur in the 1800s. Before then, epidemics came from “spontaneous generation” or were expressions of “God’s will.” Historically, we can forgive past ignorance, but in 2020 we have both the knowledge and the technology to cope with epidemic diseases — especially in the United States. Yet, we’ve recorded five million cases of COVID 19 and are headed for, perhaps, 300,000 deaths by the November elections.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, wrote in last Friday’s New York Times that we could stop the virus and save thousands of lives through aggressive public health measures. That means a national lockdown for up to six weeks to cut the spread of the virus to less than one new case per 100,000 people per day.

Yes, we will eventually have a vaccine, perhaps by the end of the year after thousands more have contracted the disease and died. Remember, too, it will take weeks, maybe months to distribute the vaccine. Meanwhile, we will be in the midst of the seasonal flu, which, itself, will sicken thousands. Can our health systems and our economy survive a double whammy of this kind?

Didn’t we already have a lockdown? Nationally, we’ve had no such thing. We’ve had a patchwork of measures with varying success from state to state — and sadly the numbers are going up. The authors point out that Minnesota just documented more new cases in a one-week period than ever before since the pandemic began. And after Sturgis who knows where the numbers will go. There’s great concern we are seeing a new surge.

A lockdown will cause more economic disruption and hurt thousands of businesses, local governments and families who’ve already been damaged — but are there any options? I believe it’s a case of paying now or paying much more later. The resources are there, but only if we learn to think differently about debt and deficits and open the federal money spigot.

The time has come for draconian measures.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.”

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