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Unprecedented times – true but not the only one in history

We have heard and continue to hear how the COVID 19 outbreak is an unprecedented time in history.  But what does that really mean? There have been many events in history with that applicable label for different reasons but with tremendous impact on the world, with many more deaths.  While two world wars come to mind, there are other pandemics in history that resulted in wiping out huge populations.

What we have today is a global health and financial crisis for sure.  Perhaps the unprecedented label comes from the magnitude of the financial impact as well as the magnitude of the social distancing that has so impacted everyone’s day to day lives. But we are not the first to experience the relentlessness of a deadly virus or bacterial outbreak.

Throughout history we have seen others. In 1918-1919 the flu (H1N1) pandemic killed over 50 million people worldwide it is estimated. They do not know where the virus originated, and the focus was on trying to treat people and contain the virus, using isolation, quarantine, disinfectant, and limiting public gatherings.

However, the inability to fully communicate preventative measures and the lack of treatment and disinfectants meant that not all isolation and limiting of public events was applied evenly and the virus spread.

During the middles ages (mid 1300s) there was the black plague. It was a global pandemic centered in Europe. The black plague started in China and made its way to Europe through trade routes. It was a slow process for there were no airplanes to increase the speed, but the result was a bacterial outbreak that killed about half the population of the day during its long run.

What makes our pandemic so unprecedented is not the loss of life, despite its tragic outcome for those who have, and its threat to the elderly and those with health concerns.

 It is unprecedented for the financial impact on a global economy that must work together across multiple nations for the whole to survive. It is unprecedented, because in these times, we expect that our health care systems do not break down.  We expect them to be able to respond to and take care of those who are ill. Health care failed in Italy and now New York State is in crisis.

It is unprecedented because at no other time in history have people moved across oceans, between nations so easily and so swiftly.  In short the virus has been able to move quickly. It is only in social distancing that we can hope to contain the virus and to hopefully eventually stamp it out.

We may be fortunate in this if we can stick to the social distancing regime, unlike other pandemics where social distancing was limited and populations in general did not understand disease transmission, nor their own personal responsibility in preventing its spread.

Will there be longterm changes due to the nature of this pandemic?  Will social distancing be the norm?  Certainly, in health care, we see a changing focus on keeping people who are sick away from other people who may be sick and away from those who are healthy.

By the way the influenza outbreak of 1918-19 had the greatest impact on the young, those under 5, and on those who were between 20 and 40.

The end of the black plague meant the end of the middle ages and the renaissance blossomed.  The end of the influenza pandemic and the end of WW1 brought on massive social change to societal structures in the world.

So where do we go today?  Stay the course and hope that our government will come through and take care of Canadians, and that other governments will do the same.  And collectively work to stabilize the international economy.

 Most importantly we want industry to contribute their capability and expertise to healthcare, whether in equipment for care, assessment or treatment and in a vaccine.

We have the means to curb this pandemic. 

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