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Our ancestors would be mortified

Empower Wisconsin | May 7. 2020

By Keith Stanglin, The Federalist 

While reflecting on our plight in the current pandemic, CNN’s Brian Stelter recently lamented, “We’ve never lived through something quite like this. We have nothing to compare this with!” It is true; we have never lived through a pandemic like this, but others have. 

Many writers have documented the devastating plagues of the past and observed that, in almost every measurable way, this novel coronavirus is just a passing blip on the screen in comparison with the major epidemics of history.

But less has been written about our society’s response in comparison to the responses of our ancestors who went through worse epidemics. As I read through premodern histories that record the effects of epidemics much worse than our present crisis, and compare them with our cultural reaction to the coronavirus today, I am struck by how our ancestors seemed to take them all in stride.

I wonder what our medieval predecessors would think of our societal reaction to this virus. In short, they would marvel at our fear and melancholy.

How did our ancestors handle epidemics? 

It is common wisdom: Years or a lifetime of ease can make one soft. Conditions, particularly health and economic conditions, have worsened. How are we holding up, especially in comparison to our ancestors? What would medieval time-travelers see in us?

Upon arrival, they would no doubt initially be impressed by our medical technology. Then they would just as certainly be amazed at our fear and hysteria. The low infection fatality rates and our sophisticated technology should mitigate our fear, but they haven’t. The medieval time travelers, once they got past all the shiny and superficial stuff, would realize we are a comparatively weak people.

This is, of course, to paint in the broadest of strokes. I have the highest respect for, and would never intend to denigrate, the tremendous fortitude of frontline medical workers, especially those in the hot spots. Nor do I mean to dismiss the grief and pain so many thousands of families are enduring, some of whom have lost multiple relatives to the disease. As a public health concern, our pandemic is significant.

What I am talking about is the general fear that so quickly and easily overtook our politicians, media, and then citizens at large, resulting in an overreaction of total lockdown and now, presumably, a permanent health emergency. All of this led to the unnecessary wrecking of the economy and need for trillions of dollars in government funding — and all of this for a virus with an infection fatality rate that is probably under 1 percent.

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