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Americans have seen much worse than this

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

It’s early Thursday, and I’m in my small, gray-painted, bookcase-lined study. My wife and I are reading the Wall Street Journal, listening to NPR, and reading e-mails from friends throughout the country. 

This morning the news is entirely focused on the Coronavirus and is uniformly dire. (I’m tempted to use the words “existential” and “catastrophic” but these words have pretty much lost their meaning.)

When I was an 8-year-old boy, my father, an immunologist, would tell me stories on Saturday mornings in his laboratory. I was there — amongst his pipettes and petri dishes and autoclaves — “streaking” plates of sheep’s blood with sputum retrieved from the throats of febrile soldiers on the wards below. While doing this work my father would talk.

My father was particularly fascinated with tuberculosis. He would begin by saying they first found evidence of the bacilli in a neolithic burial ground near Heidelberg; then in a mummy dating back to the 21st Egyptian Dynasty; and then in Shakespeare.

But the bacilli hit its stride during the Industrial Revolution when workers began living in close, urban proximity. But this disease was no respecter of class or wealth infecting Keats, Shelly and the Bronte sisters.

He would also talk about Bubonic Plague arriving in Athens in 430 BC; then in Rome in 242 AD where it killed 5,000 people a day; then in London where more than 150,000 people died between 1603 and 1665.

But in 1943, a microbiologist discovered Streptomycin, this was followed by Aureomycin and a host of antibiotics that essentially took away the fear of infection and massive, uncontrolled, bacterial kill-off.

Coronavirus is a plague, but it’s not in the same weight class as Tuberculosis, Smallpox or any plague that once killed their way across Europe. It shouldn’t even be used in the same sentence. 

But this morning — as I listen to NPR and read the Wall Street Journal — one would think that Bubonic Plague and Tuberculosis are once again running amok in the world.

Although we developed Streptomycin, and can now rearrange DNA and engineer vaccines in a matter of 18 months, we don’t have a foolproof way to control the fear or impulsivity when it comes to those who buy and sell stocks, bonds and commodities. 

Notwithstanding that China seems to have contained the spread of the Coronavirus, the magical, self-adjusting “market” appears to believe we are on the way to economic collapse.

Every day we read, “Stocks sink,” “Stocks plunge as virus fears stir volatility,” “Fed cuts rates amid virus fears.” 

These incendiary headlines are followed up inside by “Italy closes schools” and “Mistrust hurts Iran’s virus fight” and graphics showing the spread from Wuhan Province to Japan, Thailand, Istanbul and Rome. It’s impossible to read these stories and not believe that we’re dealing with a Bubonic-sized epidemic.

There is no question that there is real cause for concern. There is no doubt that there are more infections (in the United States) than have been reported — and that viral death rates will continue to grow. 

There is no doubt that those who own stock will feel impoverished (and perhaps stupid) when seeing tomorrow’s Dow Jones Average. And there’s no question that America’s endangered newspapers are having an unexpected, unintended income windfall. And they — American’s news vendors — are going to gather-up their rosebuds while they may.

But here’s the thing — this pandemic is going to run its course, and this country is going to recover its collective health and its Wall Street treasure. Yes, we are angry, divided and frightened at the moment but we have seen worse, much worse than this.

We have seen Spanish Flu, Polio and Pearl Harbor. We have seen the Great Depression of 1929; the mortgage-bundling boondoggle of 2008; the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950. We have seen wild fires devastate California and ruptured oil wells sully, sicken and slicken the Gulf of Mexico. And we’ve come back, recovered our equilibrium, from each of these events.

We are flawed and imperfect — but these disasters always seem to produce a Jonas Salk; a Mary Edwards Walker; a Walter Reed, or a young corpsman who repeatedly rides his bullet-riddled Huey into a fire-fight to save a surrounded platoon.

Because this virus is invisible, and the stock market irrational, Coronavirus presents a threat unlike Hugo, Khe Sanh or rising sea levels. But this pathogen will be met with courage, persistence and ingenuity. And then — when it’s beaten — there will be the extraordinary generosity that is part of our DNA.

I’m sure of this.

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