When Will COVID-19 Finally End? What History Teaches Us

On 17 November 2019, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China. The media began talking about “a strange pneumonia”, which was gradually infecting the inhabitants of Hubei. Nobody could have imagined what was about to happen in the months to come.

The virus moves rapidly, too rapidly. Chinese leader Xi Jinping declares war on the coronavirus “demon,” however China’s efforts – too late and insufficient – are unsuccessful in stopping contagion. In just a few months the coronavirus hits Germany, Italy, India and the United States. Whereas in the 14th century it took the plague 16 years to reach Europe, COVID-19 travelled the same route in just a few months. Times have changed and trade between countries, even very distant countries, is increasingly frequent, and especially fast.

And so the virus was free to spread.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the pandemic: “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher,“ announced General Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, adding that “The WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic. Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly.”

And so COVID-19 became a global issue. To this day, this is what we know about the virus. This and little else. We can trace its origins and its circulation, however we do not know how long it will be before we get rid of it.

Yet History can be of help to us. An article which appeared on May 10 identified two fundamental moments which determine the end of a pandemic “The medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.”

What point are we at now? It is hard to say for certain. Last summer it looked like the virus had decreased in force and appeared less dangerous. From mid-May to the end of September, infections were in the order of a few hundred / thousand per day, intensive care units were stable and deaths at a minimum.

During the past weeks however, following the European trend, the number of people infected in Italy has soared to over 11,000 (of which 95% without symptoms as declared by virologist Giorgio Palù), intensive therapy units are slowly filling up again and the number of deaths appears stable. The current situation cannot be compared to that of last winter, as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also explained: “It is not March, we have to make adequate and well-thought choices”.

To this day, the government’s objective has been to contain the virus in such a way that it impacts health institutions like a constant small wave and not like a tsunami with a devastating effect. Because maybe the best thing to do is learn to live with the virus, mitigating it as much as possible and reducing to a minimum its impact on hospitals.

The second and maybe more brutal manner of declaring the end of a pandemic is when the population, tired of the epidemic, decides to simply live with the virus. According to Allan Brandt, a Harvard historian quoted by the New York Times, this could be the case with COVID-19: “As we have seen in the debate about opening the economy, many questions about the so-called end are determined not by medical and public health data but by socio-political processes.”

The first thing which needs to be done to accelerate the end of the coronavirus pandemic is to chronicle what is happening in a clear manner and without giving in to useless alarmism. We are undoubtedly dealing with a complex virus, however, COVID-19 is not the bubonic plague.

Moreover, the latter which on many occasions decimated populations throughout the world, teaches us something extremely important: diseases come and go. Sometimes in mysterious ways. The “black death” has not even entirely disappeared, it has only momentarily retreated: “In the United States – reports the New York Times, “infections are endemic among prairie dogs in the Southwest and can be transmitted to people.”

Recently, cases have also been reported in China. “The plague” – points out Giuseppe Pigoli in I dardi di Apollo (Utet) (“Apollo’s Darts” ed.n) – “was never completely eradicated. In the year 2000 a WHO report listed over 34,000 cases in 24 nations over a 15-year span. The 1990s especially witnessed a resurgence of the infection, to the point that it has once again been included in the category of re-emerging illnesses.”

The Spanish Flu

Many have compared COVID-19 to the Spanish flu which, between 1918 and 1920, infected over 500 million people, killing (according to some estimates) 50 million. One hundred years later, we still do not yet know where the virus originated. There are diverse hypotheses: some believe it initially broke out in Haskell County in Kansas and was brought to Europe by American soldiers, while according to others it was widely spread by 96,000 infected Chinese workers sent to the Western front during the First World War to help English and French troops.

As Pigoli points out in the above-mentioned volume, “the illness initially appeared as a “banal” influenza: temperature, aching joints and weakness. However in just a few days the clinical picture underwent a dramatic change: the temperature rose drastically, mucus and blood appeared in the lungs causing patients to “drown” and bringing people, who until only a few days earlier had appeared healthy, to a rapid death”. This description reminds us a lot of COVID-19.

Contrary to what one might think however, it was not the more fragile and elderly people who were most affected, as is usually the case with coronavirus, but men who were generally healthy. Tired, dirty, and worn out by the mud in the trenches, the soldiers became the virus’ main target with hundreds of thousands wiped out.

In May 1918, death rates peaked to 70%. It was the start of the massacre: upon returning home, the veterans brought the disease with them, infecting relatives: “Accounts describe how funerals were celebrated continually. People wore protective masks, entire families fell ill and were confined to their homes with law enforcement watching their doors”.

Two years later, the Spanish flu suddenly disappeared. Pigoli points out that “viruses survive by camouflaging themselves to escape from antibodies. The history of these mutations is full of episodes which clearly show how this infectious agent is almost invincible and how, despite every year health authorities prepare new vaccines, occasionally virulent epidemics which are very difficult to control occur, such as those which broke out in 1957, 1968 and 1977”.

Viruses, moreover, come and go. And as Andrew Nikiforuk wrote in the Fourth Horseman, they are “a mutating reminder of how life is”.

Translation by Audrey Sadleir