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Virus now, virus then


“Viruses are very tiny entities made of genetic material (DNA or RNA) inside of a protein coating or envelope. Viruses are generally much smaller than bacteria and they are fascinating.”

—Dr. Jillian Rothgeb Oft, M.D., Infectious Disease Specialist at Cedar Sinai Medical Center

Coronavirus. Some six months ago a term virtually unknown outside of a small percentage of clinical researchers, now has the country (and the world) impacted by the whims of a microorganism spread through mundane human behavior such as coughs or sneezes.

Coronavirus, and the disease known as COVID-19 (‘CO’ stands for ‘corona, “VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease, with ‘19’ designating 2019, the year in which it first appeared) is the major topic on the nightly television news and printed periodicals. In short order, businesses large and small have been shuttered in America, the bastion of capitalist and material excess.

It brings with it its fair share of residual myths and rumors such as those espoused by Liz Crokin, a far right journalist aligned with President Donald Trump, who suggested the whole affair is a ploy to allow the armed forces to enforce martial law upon the American populace.

In other circles, rumors claimed radiation emitting from cell phones were linked to the spread of COVID-19. The task of separating fact from fiction is no less arduous than finding a remedy for this illusive disease.

In addition, racially-tinged gossip and innuendo have wiggled their way into the mix. Initially myths were passed along that Black people were immune to the coronavirus. There is in fact, a historical precedent to this going back to myths about race-based resilience to the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia, which devastated the city’s African-American citizenry. In an attempt to provide some clarity, we will look back in history to compare and contrast another viral pandemic of the modern age: the 1918 Spanish influenza at the end of World War I, which ravaged the globe to the tune of 50 million deaths.

Déjà vu (already seen)

“It was nineteen hundred and nineteen;

Men and women were dying,

With the stuff that the doctor called the flu.

People were dying everywhere,

Death was creepin’ all through the air,

And the groans of the rich sure was sad.

People died everywhere

death went creepin’ through the air

and the groans of the rich

sure were sad

But it was God’s own mighty plan

He’s judging this old land

North and South, East and West

can be seen

He killed rich and poor

and he’s going to

kill some more …”

—“The 1919 Influenza Blues”

by Essie Ray Jenkins (recorded in 2004).

The exact origin of the Spanish Flu is not known, 100 years after the fact. Even its causes remain mired in theory and speculation. The name itself was conjured up by the media of the day. As Europe was embroiled in war, censorship was the order of the day, with the exception of Spain. Due to its neutrality Spain’s newspapers were free to report the spread of this malady, and readers thusly associated the disease with the country.

The Great War as it was then known marked a change in the way armies fought. It ushered in the practice of trench warfare. The trenches themselves were often water logged, especially after it rained, and proved to be the perfect incubator for viruses (which favor moist environs). Additionally the British established a marshalling area to assemble troops, and supplies, including pigs and poultry. Years later, the eminent British virologist John Oxford theorized that a virus festered in these animals, mutated and then moved on to humans in an example of cross-species transmission, an example of “host jumping.”

According to Dr. Judy Micorvitch, a virologist researcher and former director of the Cancer Institute of Maryland.

“The coronavirus jumps from its initial animal carrier, the bat, to an intermediate host species, which then transmits the virus to humans. I believe John Oxford was predicting what is known today as an antigenic shift —also called reassortment—through which at least two different viruses combine, resulting in an exchange of genetic material and consequently the formation of a new virus. This may happen when two different influenza viruses infect a cell and the genome segments are exchanged during replication. I guess you could call it primitive virus sex.”

Like today’s COVID-19, the Spanish Flu is a virus spread via the respiratory system as Dr. Oft notes they both “…depend on a host to survive. Close living quarters and travel are ideal conditions for the spread of a virus.”

Other researchers (including University of Texas historian Alfred W. Crosby) speculate that the virus gained momentum at Fort Riley, Kan., where American soldiers assembled to make the transition to Europe. Regardless, the massing of large numbers of people in confined spaces, and the movement of these groups around the world provided an excellent mode of travel to spread the virus between the Old and New Worlds.

The specter of race

“During epidemics, the poorest part of the population usually suffers the most. Alfred Crosby noted that the norm changed during the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US: The Black population (which were expected to have higher influenza morbidity and mortality) had lower morbidity and mortality than the white population during the autumn of 1918. Crosby’s explanation for this was that black people were more exposed to a mild spring/summer wave of influenza earlier that same year.”

—from “Race and 1918 Influenza Pandemic in the United States: A Review of the Literature,” by Helene Økland 1 and Svenn-Erik Mamelund, 2019.

As America mobilized to aid its allies on the European battlefield, it opened its ranks to its darker populace out of expediency. Otherwise, treatment of the “Negro” citizenry continued to follow the guidelines of the Jim Crow caste system. The more enlightened of polite society recognized the benefit of equality in the treatment of health care however (again, for expediency).

“Disease germs are the most democratic creatures in the world; they know no distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” Georgia physician Dr. L.C. Allen addressed his physician colleagues in a 1914 speech.

No less a figure than sociologist W.E.B. Dubois estimated that the death rate for Black people was two to three times that of Whites during a period when over 500,000 Americans succumbed to the Spanish Flu. Always committed to civil rights, Dubois took up his pen to combat the slander so common in times of social distress.

“The high infant mortality of Philadelphia today is not a Negro affair, but an index of social condition,” he wrote in 1906’s “The health and physique of the Negro American,” a social study sponsored by Atlanta University.

Experts of yesteryear were stymied by the lack of knowledge their counterparts have today. The flu virus was not even discovered until 1933 (by American virologist Robert Shope), well after the pandemic. Even so, much about this 20th century tragedy remains shrouded in mystery. This in itself gives us an inkling of what today’s scientists are up against in unraveling the secrets of a newly discovered illness.

Back to the present

“Who you are – and I mean in terms of your race, your gender, where you live – will have a major role in how you experience COVID-19. It also will play a major role in the services that you get. … If there’s anything we can learn from the 1918 influenza epidemic, is that we really have to look at issues around race and class and racial and social inequities.”

—Vanessa Northington Gamble, M.D.,

George Washington University

The information presented here is confusing and nebulous, as “experts” are not unanimous in their conclusions about where these viruses originated, or even how they evolved. The phrase “educated guess” is an apt description of the process involved. The study of our present day COVID-19 is confusing in and of itself since several iterations have manifested themselves since it first appeared in the 1930s in commercial poultry.

“In fact, SARS-CoV2 (the cause of COVID-19) is the seventh coronavirus known to cause respiratory infections in humans. Four of these coronaviruses circulate each year and typically cause mild-to-moderate upper respiratory tract infections, like a cough or common cold,” Dr. Oft explained.

In December of 2019, the present affliction manifested itself, by most accounts, in China. It is widely held that it originated in a wet market (a marketplace selling live animals which are often slaughtered on the premises, conditions ideal for the cultivation of viruses) in Wuhan, a city of 10 million plus. But even that is not a unanimous opinion. This may have spawned slander about Asians consumption of bat meat as an origin of the virus. The Chinese in turn have rebutted that the virus was “hatched” by American military officials who visited Wuhan during the time it was discovered.

Right or wrong, ethnic innuendo remains as much a staple of the international discourse as it did during a calamity of a century ago. This in turn obscures the concrete factors of economic instability and social inequity that are a driving force in the health and well-being of humanity, then and now.