Skeletons move across a barren landscape towards some helpless and fearful people who are still alive. The scene, imagined in the mid-16th century painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, illuminated the psychic effects of the bubonic plague.
Historians say it was a terror that persisted even when the disease subsided.
The waves of devastation caused by COVID-19 in the 21st century have inflicted a dismay of its own kind on humanity, leaving many wondering when the pandemic will end.
“We tend to think of epidemics and epidemics as episodic,” said Alan Brandt, a historian of science and medicine at Harvard University. “But we are living in the era of Covid-19 and not in the Covid-19 crisis. There will be a lot of changes that are substantial and permanent. We won’t look back and say, ‘That was a terrible time, but it’s over.’ We will be dealing with the many effects of COVID-19 for decades, decades. “
Especially in the months before the Delta version went into effect, the pandemic looked like it should almost be over.
Historian of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. “When vaccines first came out, and we started getting shots in our arms, many of us felt physically and emotionally transformed,” Jeremy Green said. “We wished we could translate it as, ‘The pandemic is over for me.'”
He added, “It was a deliberate fallacy.”
And it’s a lesson in history that is often forgotten, said Frank Snowden, a historian of medicine at Yale University: how difficult it is to declare that a pandemic is over.
It cannot end even when physical illness, as measured in illness and mortality, has become too low. This may continue as the economy recovers and life returns to normal. The psychological shock of living in prolonged fear of serious illness, isolation and traumatic death takes a long time to go away.
Some diseases, such as the 1918 flu, subsided. Others, like the bubonic plague, continued to smolder. HIV is still with us, but with drugs to prevent and treat it. In each case, the trauma for those affected persisted long after the imminent risk of infection and death had subsided.
If nothing else, the COVID-19 virus has let down experts who had once confidently predicted its course, disregarding the lessons of history.
“What we are going through now is a new cycle of collective despair,” Dr Green said. The inability to control the virus, the fury at vaccination denials and a disillusionment that surprisingly effective vaccines have not yet returned to normalcy.
No matter when or how pandemics strike, they change people’s understanding of the times.
“Pandemics like COVID-19 are a violation of the progressive narrative,” Dr Green said, “that medicine is advancing and diseases are being conquered.”
As the pandemic progresses, the days merge into each other as time becomes blurry and slow without any motion.
In past pandemics, as today, strong anti-science movements disrupted public health and the reduction of disease.
As soon as Edward Jenner introduced the first smallpox vaccine in 1798, posters appeared in England showing humans who had been vaccinated with “sprout horns and hooves”, Dr Snowden said.
“In 19th century Britain, the single largest movement was the anti-vaccine movement,” he said. And along with resistance to the vaccine, diseases that should have been treated persisted.
But the difference between vaccine skeptics and pandemic misinformation, historians said, is the rise of social media, which actually amplifies debate and lies in new ways.
With HIV, Dr. Brandt said, “there were conspiracy theories and a lot of misinformation, but it never had a transmission system like COVID-19.”
Other epidemics, like this one, Dr. Snowden calls “exaggerated pride,” the proud certainty from experts that adds to the frustrations of understanding how and when it will happen.
With COVID, leading experts first declared that masks do not help prevent infection, only later reverse themselves. Epidemiologists confidently publish models of how epidemics will progress and what it takes to reach herd immunity, only to be proven wrong. Investigators said the virus was spread on surfaces, then later added that, no, it was spread through tiny droplets in the air. He said the virus was unlikely to change substantially, then warned of the greater transmittance of the delta version.
“We paid a heavy price for that,” said Dr. Snowden. With ever-changing directives and strategies, many people lost faith in the authorities, which undermined the effort to control the virus.
Jonathan Moreno, historian of science and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said the end of Covid would be like a cancer that has gone into remission – still there, but not as deadly.
“You’re never okay,” he said. “It’s always in the background.”