The Earth is Tilting

Maybe it is. The lines on charts showing the new daily incidents of COVID-19 infection are still spiking up. Only China has leveled off, an interesting fact given the huge population, but how much to attribute to the authoritarian culture? There is too much randomness, too much chaos, too much short-term hedonism and self-interest, and too much honest open discussion of the problem in most of the world for the China model to hold strong promise.

I cannot stop thinking about the devastation by infectious diseases suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas beginning in 1492—and continuing for hundreds of years. The Indian population of what is now the contiguous United States, which might have been 10 million at first contact, plummeted to about 237,000 at the turn of the twentieth century. That would match the idea held by many demographers today that diseases wiped out about 90 percent of the population at contact. But Indians, a tribal friend reminds me, were still suffering from smallpox a generation or two ago. And, one can imagine, from polio and measles and all else.

That initial contact, like our COVID-19, was quiet, stealthy; the biggest death counts happened before the inhabitants had met the colonizer carriers. The viruses came ashore from Atlantic fishing boats and Pacific fur-trade boats; they marched ahead of the Hudson’s Bay trappers and came up the Mississippi with De Soto’s pigs. And tribal people had no notion of where or how they came down with the measles, smallpox, flu and other European maladies. Oftentimes the sweats and communal closeness that had served them well through injury did the opposite with these foreign diseases.

Indians must have been accustomed to death by scarcity and conflict. The fear of imminent death by disease seems to me qualitatively different from the fear of death in battle or in hunger. There is, in battle, the chance of winning, and the opportunity to go down in glory. There is the opportunity for elective self-sacrifice and honor in living and serving in a starving community. Individual actions must have seemed futile in the case of smallpox and measles.

If disease in our modern era gives us one thing the Indians did not have, it is the opportunity for individual sacrifice and even heroism in the face of disease. Medical personnel across the world are serving—and sometimes dying—as they work to confront coronavirus.

There are other, more global kinds of heroism. The crisis has political and social leaders in Israel and Palestine working together in common cause to halt the spread of the disease. Israelis are finding housing for Palestinian workers so that they do not have to cross the border daily. Negotiations to release Israeli-held Palestinian funds and aging prisoners are ongoing.

Can we hope for such cooperation to infect nations and divisions within nations as we all adapt to this new, tilting planet?