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No, This Isn't Unprecedented

Greta Scott

Posted on August 2, 2020 11:56

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"The communications between the peoples, today so numerous and more and more rapid; the navigation by steamship, the railways, and on top of that this happy tendency of the populations to visit each other, to mix, to merge, […], and you will be forced to admit that for such a disease, so widespread and under these conditions, cordons and quarantines are […] in the very great majority of cases, impossible." - The French delegate to the International Sanitary Conference regarding cholera, 1851

The word "unprecedented" describes something that has never happened before. I wouldn't be surprised if it's 2020's Word of the Year. Politicians are constantly referring to the "unprecedented circumstances" we find ourselves in, and the "unprecedented measures" taken to combat the coronavirus.

But, as Professor Deepak Kumar (perhaps slightly harshly) pointed out, "It is not unprecedented in any way. Only politicians and ignorant people would call the current pandemic unprecedented." Were it not for politicians' ignorance, we may have been better prepared, and hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.

Coronavirus has many historical precedents. From the bubonic plague to cholera and more recent pandemics, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola, this situation is not novel.

Our response to the virus also isn't new. Wearing masks and banning mass gatherings can be dated back to the plague which ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages, and quarantine and isolation were used to combat Spanish flu.

https://www.asiavillenews.com/article/is-coronavirus-pandemic-unprecedented-historians-on-what-we-can-learn-from-past-39707
Image by Wellcome Collection. CC BY 2.0.
https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/
Image by Nicholas LePan and Visual Capitalists.

Even the xenophobia and attempts to define coronavirus by its Chinese origins have historical precedents. Just as President Trump has nicknamed coronavirus the "Chinese Virus," the Victorians called cholera "Bengali disease." And whilst Chinese people have faced xenophobic attacks in 2020, it was Jewish people who were scapegoated during the plague.

This is all historical of course, maybe easy to point out in hindsight. Politicians can still argue this pandemic was unforeseeable, a useful argument that washes their hands of their failure to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths. It's easy to believe when the current situation is not something that you or I, as laypeople, could have imagined. Many of us have never experienced a pandemic; this feels new and unpredictable. But you and I are not responsible for predicting pandemics. Our politicians should have seen it coming -- scientists certainly did.

We have known about the threat of a global pandemic since the 90s -- scientists wrote books which became bestsellers (take "The Hot Zone" and "The Coming Plague"). Just last year the WHO reported on the "very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen." Just look at this list of news articles compiled by the WHO, all warning of the possibility of a future pandemic, and the world's unpreparedness for that eventuality.

Last year, just 59 countries in the world had a health security programme, and not one was fully financed. No wonder our leaders would rather we think the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented -- all the warnings were there, and yet we were unprepared.

As WHO Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained last year, "As leaders of nations, communities and international agencies, we must take responsibility for emergency preparedness, and heed the lessons these outbreaks are teaching us. We have to 'fix the roof before the rain comes.'"

Our leaders didn’t do that, and instead, they are claiming that this pandemic is "unprecedented." It's not, and if we believe them, we will let them get away clean-handed with the devastation they could have prevented.

Greta Scott

Posted on August 2, 2020 11:56

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Source: HuffPost

Politicians, actors and commentators denounced the president's xenophobic description of the coronavirus.

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