When asked about the first evidence of civilization, the answer shared by renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead was this, “A human thigh bone with a healed fracture found in an archaeological site 15,000 years old”. Mead further explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken thigh long enough for the bone to heal. Others must have provided shelter, protection, food and drink over an extended period of time for this kind of healing to be possible. A broken thigh bone that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.
The Covid-19 virus has crossed our gates, and undoubtedly we are at war. In these periods of home confinement, it is stories like the one above that keep our new found family routine of late night conversations alive and interesting. During one such exchange that went past midnight, one of my fellows had popped a query, “Is the study of history really worth it”? To explain the significance of history to a young mind passionate about modern day science and technology is never easy. Nevertheless, I took up the challenge, and about 20 minutes later I summarized the chat by reminding him of the lines “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. And yes, the gestation of this article also started that night.
Eight Miles Apart
HG Wells opens his masterpiece ‘A Short History of the World’ with a striking description of the emptiness and vastness of our universe. While highlighting the enormous vacancy of space out there, he points out that life as we know, exists only on the surface of earth. The distance between the surface and centre of earth is about 4000 miles; however, life is capable of sustaining only up to 3 miles deep into the earth and just about 5 miles above its surface. Despite thriving in this limited space that is hardly 8 miles apart, human beings have made tremendous progress. So much so that well before the clock turned past midnight to give birth to the year 2020, we were armed with path-breaking tools such as supercomputing, gene editing, artificial intelligence and much more. We were on the brink of playing God from creating designer babies to disrupting death. And then, a sneeze from central China has brought the entire globe to a standstill that has humbled the human race to a lock-down.
Eight Hundred Lifetimes
You may have learned more about curves, graphs and slopes in the past few weeks. While a flattened curve on an ECG plot is literally heartbreaking, flattening of the Covid-19 infection curve is what each of us is working towards now. This may also be an ideal time to contemplate over the curve of human growth. Described as a disturbing and provocative book, ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler details many aspects of the rate of human advancements over the years. He had simplified the timeline of our growth like this. If the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of 62 years each, that means there have been a total of about 800 lifetimes. Of these, almost 650 were indisputably spent in the caves. Our ability to write and communicate better has been around for the last 70 lifetimes, while only in the last 4 we have been able to measure time with precision. But the overwhelming majority of all the technology, material goods or knowledge was attained in the 800th lifetime of ours. Viruses are microscopic zombies that just about qualify as a living thing, and ironically the Covid-19 attack on humans is also happening during the 800th cycle of life.
Toffler had also pointed out that the history of human acceleration may best be explained through the progress we have made in transportation. Way back in 6000 BC, the fastest transportation available to man over long distances was the camel caravan that averaged 8 mph (miles per hour). It was only around 1600 BC when chariots were invented that raised the maximum speed limit to 24 mph. So impressive was this invention that it could not be breached even by the early steam locomotives. After millions of years, in the late 19th century, the human race could finally breach speeds of 100 mph through advanced steam locomotives. The strides that we have made after that are mind boggling, with the Apollo-10 mission on their way back from the moon in 1969 clocked almost 25,000 mph. Plotted on a graph, the line representing progress of transportation speed in the recent past would leap vertically off a page. Paradoxically, acclaimed thinkers like Nassim Nicholas Taleb have pointed out that rapid increase in global transportation is the primary reason for underestimation of the spread rate of the Covid-19 epidemic.
Blunders from History
While the visionary in Bill Gates may have warned us of pandemics many years back, even he may find it difficult to answer many questions raised now. Will a temperature difference of 10 degrees make the virus less virulent, will the cases come down from the 10th day of lock down, will the virus stay alive on surfaces beyond 10 hours, and will a vaccine be available in 10 months from now? The task of answering these questions is best left to the real experts. Instead let’s go back in time and relive two stories of medical blunders that cost human lives dearly. There may be some learning, despite the centuries that set us apart from those annals of history.
There is a raging debate brewing if the World Health Organization (WHO) did delay in acknowledging the fact that human to human transmission happens for Covid-19 virus. While the jury is still out there, let us look at something similar that happened in the past.
Black Death was the popular name given for all forms of plague that ravaged ancient Rome in AD 68, 79, 125 and 164. Between the years 1347 and 1400, it had affected almost all of Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltics, with almost 25 million succumbing in Europe and resulting in halving the population of England. With passage of time, any immunological resistance had been lost, and plague reappeared in England in 1664. Regrettably, the general belief was that the visitation of Black Death was God’s punishment for sin and the only treatments on offer were prayers, fasting and resignation to fate. It is extraordinary to recount that despite the evidence staring at everyone, none from the accepted scientific community seem to consider that plague is infectious and contagious. In what could be considered as one of the biggest medical blunders of all times, they discarded the opinions of a brilliant mind. Girolamo Fracastaro, apart from being a poet, mathematician, physician and astronomer, was also a pioneer in epidemiology. In his book published as early as in 1546, Fracastaro had clearly shown that diseases like plague could be transmitted between humans. He had even concluded that this happens through small bodies or germs (in his words seminaria), which carried the disease from person to person. A compelling argument, which if believed and accepted could have saved millions of lives but for religious, medical and even political stupidity.
A disease carrier is a person who breeds the organisms of an infectious disease in his or her body, and passes it on to infect others while remaining immune to the disease. One of the key factors that have made the fight against Covid-19 more complex is the awareness that even those who are not showing symptoms or may never ever too, are capable of transmitting the disease to others. However, the most (in)famous carrier of all time was probably ‘Typhoid Mary’. Mary Mallon of Oyster Bay, New York contracted typhoid around the turn of the century and made a full recovery. Typhoid carriers are those with a permanent infection in the gall bladder where the bacteria Salmonella breed freely without causing any apparent harm to the host. These bacteria enter the bowel and get excreted out and lack of personal hygiene and proper hand washing makes transmission inevitable.
In 1901, Mary got a job as a cook to a family and soon the family washer woman and a visitor to the house contracted typhoid. In 1902, she moved to another family job and a couple of weeks later all 7 members and 2 servants were down with the disease. By 1904, sporadic cases of typhoid began to occur in Oyster Bay and adjacent towns which soon developed into an epidemic. Investigations showed that sources of infection had one thing in common; they all came from the households in which Mary had been a cook. By this time suspicion had fallen on Mary, but when confronted with the issue, she promptly disappeared. At length, she was apprehended and put under isolation. However, her appeal to the Supreme Court was upheld, which paved the way for her release under the condition that she will never again take up employment as a food handler. This proved to be a major blunder, as Mary was never serious to abide by her pledge. In 1914 another typhoid epidemic broke out where Mary had yet again worked as a cook. Finally, in the interest of public safety Mary was kept under detention till she died in 1938, but not before thousands of lives were lost.
For all of us living around the 800th lifetime of mankind, on the surface of a planet where life is contained to a space that is just 8 miles apart, these are challenging times. Despite the alarm and collateral damage, there is no doubt that the human race will eventually win this war against the Coronavirus. Laura Kelly Fanucci summarized it best through her lines; “When this ends, may we find that we have become more like the people we wanted to be, we were called to be, we hoped to be and may we stay that way”.
And once that happens, we may need to wage another war, this time with an even more dangerous ‘enemy’; one that kills almost 8500 children every day…..and that enemy is HUNGER. As the words of Margaret Mead remind us, we are at our best when we serve others.
The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions, a globally emerging Knowledge Services Organization that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences value chain since 2005.
The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author