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Posted: February 8, 2020

Where is the world heading with the coronavirus?

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

Is the world – including the East Kootenay – on the edge of another global pandemic?

This is not an idle question. Nor is it fear-mongering. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pandemics are generally defined as a disease “prevalent over the whole of a country or continent, or over the whole world.” When such a disease jumps borders, it’s called a pandemic.

The coronavirus meets the OED’s definition with over 600 deaths recorded in China and more than 30,000 infected and other cases popping up around the world daily. The first plane load of Canadians potentially infected with the dreaded virus landed in Trenton Feb. 7 where they will be quarantined for two weeks on a military base. Another plane load of Canadians is on the way from Wuhan, China where the epidemic first started.

But the Director General of the World Health Organization says a drop in the number of new cases in China for two days is “good news,” according to a story Friday in the Manchester Guardian. It appears there’s no cause for panic yet but coronavirus cases are still increasing. The situation is hard to decipher. But it’s times like this when something can be gleaned by looking at history.

In October 1918 as the carnage of the First World War was coming to a dreadful but welcomed end, people started to get severely ill in Cranbrook as indeed they were all over the world. Soon many were dying in what came to be known as the “Spanish Flu” or influenza although it actually started in the US but was first positively identified in Spain. Regardless of how it started, the only thing that can be said for sure is that it spread liked lightning around North America as soldiers returned from the war.

November was the worst month by far with more than 50 dying in Cranbrook, which only had a population then of around 2,000. Can you imagine what the reaction would be like today to that many sudden deaths when we have a population of over 20,000? It would be devastating! And when you look at newspaper stories from the Cranbrook History Centre’s archives and as well as Jim Cameron’s fine book, “Cranbrook Then and Now” it’s obvious that devastating is the right word.

In Dr. F.W. Green’s memorabilia at the History Centre it says: “This plague spread across the globe, killing people by the thousands. On one day, in the St. Eugene Hospital, some eight people succumbed to this frightening disease and there were others dying at home before Dr. Green could provide any medical aid.”

In Cameron’s book, he says: “The deaths may have numbered 50, 100 or more . . . Mrs. Finlay Robson died one week after her husband, leaving three orphaned children. Her sister came from Calgary to take them back with her and died before she could leave . . . The entire town was either sick or nursing those who were (sick) . . .” Hard to believe, but true.

What many people don’t realize as we live in the cocoon of modern medicine is that pandemics like the Bubonic Plague have been with us since the dawn of time.

According to MPH On-line, there have been 10 major pandemics in world history that killed millions or more including the HIV/Aids Pandemic 2005 to 2012, (36 million), the Asian flu 1956 to 1958 (two million), the 1918 Spanish flu  pandemic more than 50 million killed and the horrific Black Death, or Bubonic Plague as it’s now called (1346 to 1353) that killed an estimated 200 million, close to a third of the world’s population long before the age of modern transportation to spread the dread disease easier. Who says it couldn’t happen again?

Back to the beginning. Are we on the edge of another global pandemic now?

“The beast is moving very fast,” says Alessandro Vespignani, a modeller of infectious diseases at Northeastern University in Boston. But he also adds that asymptomatic transmission is “rare.”

So, what does the future hold. Your guess is as good as mine. But the nightmarish prospect of another pandemic occurring is certainly a topic worth thinking about.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and a healthy septuagenarian. For now.

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