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Living in Interesting Times

I’ve always thought the expression “May you live in interesting times” was an ancient Chinese curse. It seems this is not the case.

Nonetheless, with the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, we do indeed live in interesting times.

But humankind throughout the ages has survived pandemics of many kinds. We will get through this one too. And we’ll be stronger for it, and better people too, I hope.

Today we have science on our side. That wasn’t always the case.

When the first system of quarantine was instituted—under Venetian law, in 1347—there was no understanding of what caused disease. But it was known that people got sick if they came into close contact with one another.

To prevent the spread of Black Death—the bubonic plague that wiped out an estimated third of Europe’s population—sailors were forced to remain on their ships for a trentino of 30 days. The isolation period was eventually increased to 40 days, or a quarantino, which is the origin of the word quarantine.

The importance of social distancing soon gained ground. By the 1500s, European cities were enacting laws to separate the sick from the healthy.

But it was not until the 1890s that scientists first discovered viruses. And it was not until 1939, eight years after the invention of the electron microscope, that scientists first saw what viruses looked like.

In 1918–1919, the Spanish flu pandemic wiped out a third of the world’s population. No one knew then that flu was caused by a virus. There were no vaccines to protect people against infection. And there were no antibiotics to treat the secondary bacterial infections that often come with flu.

Scientists today expect to have a vaccine for COVID-19 within the next 12 to 18 months. So we will live in interesting times for a while yet.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for our scientists and for the medical professionals who are keeping us safe.

And on the plus side? COVID-19 is giving us great stories to tell our grandkids someday.

We should all be writing them down!

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