Past Terrors Shook The Nation

Polio patients in iron lungs. New York Daily News photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As uncomfortable as it is to us now, the coronavirus pandemic will interest future historians as another cataclysmic eruption distorting lives and causing death around the world.

They happened before. Every generation, it seems, worries about some kind of existential threat. They are events that grab us by the throat and leave lasting impressions

The struggle against COVID-19 is described as a war likely to last 12 to 24 months.

War, whether in medical or military terms, is a good description. One of its definitions is to “state one’s intent to suppress or eradicate.” The medical community is doing its best to suppress or eradicate the coronavirus as it tries to do the same to us biologically. It’s a war against a “novel” virus, meaning it’s new and the way it acts is largely unknown.

It even mutates, according to a Los Angeles Times report, meaning it is more contagious now than the strain that appeared earlier. As in a war, this requires changing strategy and reconnaissance to learn what the “enemy” will do next.

Meanwhile, the threat of disease changes lifestyles and customs, like social distancing and warnings against getting too close to each other for fear of infection. The psychological and sociological legacies, especially on youths,  of such warnings will be studied in the future to see how they changed us.

We, our country and the world are the children of cataclysmic events. Listing them is purely arbitrary, but perhaps useful in recalling other periods of extreme stress and upheaval, whether manmade or imposed by nature. Ancient history has its own examples, but here are some in relatively modern times. Some may be called major disruptions with severe human consequences.

The American Civil War: Also called the War Between the States, it lasted from 1861 to 1865 between the 34 existing northern states loyal to the Union, and 11 southern states that seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.

Intense combat left between 620,000 and 750,000 people dead. The Civil War remains the deadliest military conflict in U.S. history, and accounted for more American military deaths than from all other wars combined until around the Vietnam war.

Fought mostly in the South, the war devastated much of the region and its infrastructure, especially the transportation system. The Confederacy collapsed, slavery was abolished and 4 million slaves were freed. The war is one of the most studied episodes in U.S. history.

World War I: Known as the Great War, or “the war to end all wars,” it lasted from 1914 to 1918. More than 70 million military personnel mobilized, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It also was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated 9 million combatant and 7 million civilian deaths, which included genocides.

The war embroiled most of Europe’s nations, along with Russia, the United States, the Middle East and other regions. It pitted the Central Powers, mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, against the Allies, mainly France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan and, from 1917, the United States. It ended with the defeat of the Central Powers. The war was considered virtually unprecedented in the slaughter, carnage and destruction it caused.

World War I was a turning point in the political, cultural, economic and social  climate of the world. It sparked many revolutions and uprisings. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian empires ceased to exist, with new states created from their remains. Despite the conclusive Allied victory and creation of the League of Nations, a second world war would follow just over 20 years later.

The 1918 flu pandemic: Lasting from the spring of 1918 through the spring or early summer of 1919, it infected 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

The pandemic struck toward the end of World War I, taking a toll on military personnel housed in close quarters in barracks that increased infections. To maintain morale, World War I censors minimized early reports of flu deaths and illness in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. Newspapers in Spain were free to report flu deaths, leading to conjecture that the disease originated there. It became known as the Spanish Flu. Despite its name, the geographic origin of Spanish Flu is not known.

Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill the very young and the very old, with a higher survival rate for those in between. But the Spanish Flu caused high mortality rates among young adults. Medical experts disagreed on reasons for that, but many believed malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals and poor hygiene contributed by the recent war produced a bacterial superinfection. This superinfection killed most of its victims, typically after prolonged bed rest. The 1918 Spanish Flu was the first of two pandemics caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus. The second was the 2009 swine flu pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were 60.8 million cases worldwide with deaths ranging from 150,000 to 575,000.

The Great Depression: The worldwide economic downturn began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized Western world, sparking fundamental changes in economic institutions, macroeconomic policy and economic theory.

Although it originated in the United States after a major fall in stock prices beginning around Sept. 4, 1929, the Great Depression caused drastic declines in economic output, severe unemployment and acute deflation in almost every country of the world. Its social and cultural effects were staggering, especially in the United States, where the Great Depression caused the harshest adversity faced by Americans since the Civil War.

The recession devastated both rich and poor countries. Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices dropped while international trade fell by more than 50%. Unemployment in the United States rose to 23% and in some countries went as high as 33%. Cities around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction virtually halted in many countries. Farming communities and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by about 60%. Facing plummeting demand with few other sources of jobs, areas dependent on industries such as mining and logging suffered the most.

World War II: The global war lasted from 1939 to 1945 involving the Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, in battle against the Allies, France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

The war in many respects was a continuation of World War I, after a 20-year hiatus, because of disputes left unsettled. More than 100 million people from more than 30 countries were involved. It was the deadliest conflict in history, with 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of them in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, genocides like the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

World War II changed the political alignment and social structure of the globe. The Soviet Union and the United States emerged as rival superpowers, setting the stage for a half-century Cold War. In the wake of European devastation, the influence of the great powers waned, triggering the decolonization of Africa and Asia. Most counties whose industries had been damaged moved toward economic recovery and expansion. Political integration, especially in Europe, began as an effort to prevent future aggresion, end pre-war hostilities and forge a sense of a common identity.

Polio: Known since prehistoric times, polio once was the most feared disease of the 20th century. From 1916 onward, a polio epidemic appeared in the United States each summer in at least one part of the country, with the most serious outbreaks in the 1940s and 1950s.

No one knew how polio was transmitted or what caused it, sparking wild theories that it spread from imported bananas or stray cats. In the late 1940s, polio outbreaks in the United States grew bigger and more frequent, crippling an average of more than 35,000 each year.

For four decades, swimming pools and movie theaters closed during the summer polio season. Frightened parents stopped their children from going to playgrounds or birthday parties, fearing they would “catch polio.” A survivor said, “One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed.”

In 1952, polio cases in the United States peaked at 57,879, resulting in 3,145 deaths. Those who survived the highly infectious disease could end up with some form of paralysis, forcing them to use crutches, wheelchairs or to be put into an iron lung, a large tank respirator that would pull air in and out of the lungs, because the disease weakened the muscles needed to breathe.

Polio, also known as poliomyelitis, was found to be a viral paralytic infection of the spinal cord and brain. The majority of those infected didn’t get sick or developed mild flu-like symptoms typical of other viral illnesses that last up to 10 days.

In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh discovered a vaccine that virtually eradicated the disease. The number of polio cases fell to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the United States, though a traveler infected with the disease brought it to the country in 1993. Vaccines have eliminated polio in all but three countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The panic surrounding the polio epidemic is strangely similar to the fear and uncertainty felt with the coronavirus.

HIV/AIDS: The AIDS epidemic, caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), found its way into the United States as early as 1960, but was first noticed after doctors discovered clusters of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia in gay men in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco in 1981.

Treatment of the disease is primarily by a “drug cocktail” of antiretroviral drugs, and education programs to help people avoid infection. A vaccine for the disease does not exist.

The number of U.S. deaths from AIDS has declined sharply since the disease was detected. In the United States in 2016, 1.1 million people over 13 years of age lived with an HIV infection, of whom 14% were not aware of their infection. Gay and bisexual men, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDs in theUnited States.

As of 2018, about 700,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the United States since the epidemic began. Nearly 13,000 people with AIDS in the United States die each year.  With improved treatment and prevention, death rates have dropped significantly. The overall death rate among HIV/AIDS-infected people in New York City fell by 62% from 2001 to 2012. New medical treatments, travel restrictions and new public health policies were among the responses that emerged since the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s.

Opioid epidemic:  From 1999 to 2018, almost 450,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illegal opioids like cocaine.

An opioid epidemic is the overuse or misuse of addictive opioid drugs with major medical, social and economic consequences, including overdose deaths. Opioids include a diverse class of moderately strong painkillers, including oxycodone, sold under various trade names.

The potency and availability of these substances, despite their high risk of addiction and overdose, have made them popular as medical treatments and as recreational drugs. They have sedative effects on the part of the brain that regulates breathing. In high doses, opioids cause respiratory failure and death. Opioids are effective in treating acute pain, but less useful for treating chronic or long-term pain because of the risks involved.

The U.S. Surgeon General said “The Opioid Crisis” likely began with over-prescription of opioids in the 1990s, which led to them becoming the most prescribed class of medications in the United States. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions in the United States tripled from 76 million to 219 million a year. As of 2016, more than 289 million prescriptions were written for opioid drugs each year.

The rise in opioid overdose deaths came in three waves. The first wave began in the 1990s with prescription drugs. The second wave began in 2010 with deaths involving heroin. The third wave began in 2013 involving synthetic opioids, including illegally manufactured fentanyl.

Gun violence: Worldwide, more than 500 people die every day from gun violence. In the United States, gun violence causes tens of thousands of death and injuries each year. In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries and 33,636 deaths. These deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides, 505 deaths by accident or negligent use of firearms and 281 deaths by “undetermined intent.”

In 2017, gun deaths reached their highest level since 1968 with 39,773.

About 1.4 million people have died from firearms in the United States between 1968 and 2011. Although the country has half the population of 22 other high-income nations, it has 82% of all gun deaths, 90% of all women killed with guns, 91% of children under 14 killed with them and 92% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 killed with guns.

Gun violence is most common in poor urban areas and is frequently associated with gang violence, often involving male juveniles or young adult males. Gun violence caused 30% of deaths in 2016 among young men 15 to 19 years old.

Mass shootings in the United States account for a small fraction of gun-related deaths.

Amnesty International calls gun-related violence a human rights issue threatening our most fundamental right, the right to life.

Despite widespread concern about the violence, Congress has prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research that could be used to advocate for gun control. Legislation at the federal, state and local levels has attempted to address gun violence is a variety of ways.

School shootings:  School shootings were described as a “uniquely American crisis,” by the Washington Post in 2018, although that might be an overstatement. They happen in other parts of the world too, but seemingly not as often.

Since 1970, there were 1,300 school shooting incidents in the United States. The greatest number of incidents since 1970 came in 2018, with 82 known shootings leaving 51 killed. California, Texas and Florida were at the top in the number of school shootings. Also since 1970, 669 shootings occurred outside of school buildings but on school grounds, and 588 inside school buildings.

In an independent study, CNN reported at least 177 school shootings between 2009 and 2018, with 114 killed and 242 injured. There is no standard definition for what qualifies as a school shooting in the United States, CNN discovered. Nor is there a universally accepted database of relevant statistics. So CNN investigated 10 years of shootings on K-12 campuses and found that school shootings are increasing and no type of community is spared.

Other findings: While school shootings disproportionately affect urban schools and people of color, mass shootings are more likely to occur at white, suburban schools. Nearly 200,000 students attend schools where shootings occurred. While black students make up about 15% of the more than 50 million students in the United States, they account for about one-third of students who experienced a school shooting since 2009. Regardless of what’s behind this violence, it touches every aspect of school life.

In 2019, reported USA Today, “about 95% of public schools now have students and teachers practice huddling in silence, hiding from an imaginary gunman.”

For those with long memories, this might remind them of the “duck-and-cover” drills of the Cold War years, after the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear bomb on Aug. 29, 1949. By the early 1950s, schools across the United States were training students to dive under their desks and cover their heads, simulating what should be done in case of an atomic attack amid growing panic over an escalating arms race.

Although the duck-and-cover drills in schools  ultimately were seen as largely useless, they left a legacy. Historian Dee Garrison argued that they later would fuel antiwar and antinuclear activism by outraged parents and students.

The terrifying drills did prove, said Garrison, that “the world is a really disturbing place.”

Today, we are going through another kind of drill involving social distancing, washing our hands and wearing face masks to guard against the coronavirus. That will leave another legacy, one of which is proof that the world is still a really disturbing place.


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