“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That famous aphorism, most commonly attributed to the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, seems particularly apropos these days.
It is undeniable that history repeats itself, both in the sense that events beyond our control happen and that we frequently react to them in the same ineffective ways.
With repeated outbreaks of infectious diseases throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, however, we have learned how to respond to a threat such as COVID-19.
The important elements are early detection, effective communication to the public, the promotion of research and development (i.e., tests, vaccines), containment strategies and multinational collaboration.
We can see just how important these things are simply by comparing the spread of the disease in jurisdictions that followed these principles (South Korea, Australia) and those that didn’t (Spain, USA).
However, those are high level considerations.
We should also consider what we can learn as individuals.
Personal hygiene. Interestingly, the measures for protecting oneself and others from the transmission of the coronavirus are same as for seasonal influenza (or most pathogens for that matter). Wash hands, cough and sneeze into elbows, stay home if you’re sick. In fact, these things should simply be habit at all times.
Empathy. We have always appreciated first responders (perhaps not as vocally as recently), but this pandemic has also taught us to appreciate other essential workers such as truckers and grocery workers. Often these folks are among the least appreciated and poorest paid. Many have received temporary wage increases. Maybe we should start thinking about making sure they are permanently compensated as essential.
Equality. The virus itself does not discriminate, but the impact of it does. Those people who live in poverty are more at risk of a poor outcome, both physically and financially. Governments are now making huge, sweeping commitments of financial. Maybe it’s time to get serious about ensuring every member of our society has a guaranteed livable income.
Humility. The curtailment of civil liberties has hit many of us hard, but has also been an opportunity to appreciate the freedom we normally enjoy and to recognize the value of sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good.
Reflection. All of this self-isolation and deviation from normalcy has given many of us an opportunity to better appreciate all those things in life we are currently missing and often take for granted: family, friends, health, culture, recreation etc.
We can only hope the authorities will come away from this better prepared for the next one as SARS, Ebola and H1N1 better prepared them for this one. We can also only hope better preparation leads to better implementation on a wider scale.
On a personal level, though, we can act. We can remember the individual lessons and, perhaps, forge a better society.
The learning curve is one we don’t want to flatten.