Coronavirus and History

3/20/2020 2:35:47 PM

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Muhammad Salah Ballaky
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Schools and universities, places of worship, and theaters have closed. Festivals and conferences are canceled. Air traffic has slowed, streets are deserted, financial markets have tumbled, and a state of emergency has been declared. It is a scene that has become familiar in our world in the era of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In the Middle Ages, Europe experienced the “black plague,” which killed between one-third and two-thirds of its population. At the end of the First World War, there was the “Spanish flu” with fifty million victims. Other pandemics, including SARS and Ebola in the past decade and a half, have taken their toll in Asia and Africa. But in recent decades, Europe and other parts of the world believed that they had become safe from such events by building effective health security policies to protect their populations.

But now, we are in the midst of a pandemic that is devastating not only Europe and the Middle East, but also countries in North America, Asia, and Oceania. Since being identified in China as a new and dangerous member of the coronavirus family in early January, COVID-19 has spread to more than 170 countries worldwide. As a highly infectious respiratory disease, it poses a threat to everyone in every society. On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, signaling that the world is confronting something of historic proportions that countries must respond to as both an internal and external threat that affects their citizen indiscriminately

Great French novelist Albert Camus’ 1947 masterpiece “The Plague” reflects some scenes of our current painful experience through an imagined outbreak of disease that strikes the Algerian city of Oran during the colonial era. Camus talks about the paradox of this mysterious epidemic in that, even as it separates people and cuts their world apart, it also compels them to cluster, solidify, and act altruistically, giving them opportunities for courage and heroism.

Europe in the coronavirus era returns to the same situation, but the paradox has deepened as a result of the revolution of rapid communications and open social networks. At a time when the spatial barrier in communication has collapsed and the globalization of movement has made the world like a small village, the specter of isolation and introversion returns and countries become unable to achieve their goals.

Italy, where more than 3,400 people have died from the virus, instituted a nationwide quarantine, leaving the country at a standstill. The US imposed a month-long travel ban on citizens of many European nations. Germany closed its borders with Austria, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland and banned all public events with more than 100 participants. Spain ordered all residents to confine themselves to their homes and also closed all schools, restaurants, and bars. Europe's busiest airport, London Heathrow, said that total passenger numbers fell 4.8 percent last month compared with the same period in 2019, with the full effect of the pandemic still yet to be tabulated. People meanwhile rushed to supermarkets to buy essentials in bulk, stripping shelves bare of canned goods, pasta, and toilet paper. Many also stocked up on face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectants, causing shortages in many areas

As of this writing, we are about three months into the COVID-19 outbreak. The WHO officially declared it a pandemic on March 11. Countries experiencing the greatest number of cases include China, Iran, Italy, and the Republic of Korea. The US currently has more than 14,000 confirmed cases, but insufficient testing does not provide a clear and complete picture.

All indications are that the new coronavirus is less lethal and dangerous than some other deadly epidemics or when compared to the daily toll of famines, civil wars, and natural and climatic disasters. What remains as a great moral lesson in the era of pandemics is what Albert Camus said in the words of one of the protagonists of his novel: “What we learn in the midst of disasters is that people have things that deserve more admiration than they have, which is disgusting.”


Muhammad Salah Ballaky is a translator and student at Salahaddin University


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and or those quoted and do not necessarily reflect those of NRT.