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How Do Pandemics Change Societies? A Historian Weighs In


You know, it's hard to pinpoint the exact anniversary of this pandemic. December 8, 2019, was the day a man who had visited a wet market in Wuhan first fell sick. Then there was a day in February 2020 when the World Health Organization officially announced the name COVID-19. But if you wanted to choose the day when Americans began to realize just how much lives are going to change here in the U.S., you'd probably go with March 11.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Clearly a conversation going on here between the officials and both head coaches.

CORNISH: In fact, to be even more specific, the evening of March 11 in Oklahoma City, just after 7 p.m. local time. The Oklahoma City Thunder were about to tip off against the Utah Jazz.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: But both teams have gone back to the locker room.

CORNISH: But something was holding things up.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: The fans here in the arena don't know what's going on. We don't know what's going on.

CORNISH: Just hours before in Washington, D.C., Anthony Fauci had told a congressional committee that the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., which at the time involved a reported 647 cases, was about to get worse.


ANTHONY FAUCI: The flu has a mortality of 0.1%.


FAUCI: This has a mortality of 10 times that.


FAUCI: And that's the reason why I want to emphasize we have to stay ahead of the game in preventing this.

CORNISH: That same day in Geneva, the director general of the World Health Organization announced that the virus was spreading at a rate so alarming that it was time to use a new word to describe it.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

CORNISH: And back in Oklahoma, in Midwest City, school was dismissed early.


CYNTHIA GILLION: And I didn't understand because they didn't have snow on the ground, and it didn't seem to be a tornado. It wasn't the things that we normally dismiss from that I'm aware of.

CORNISH: So Cynthia Gillion, a teacher, decided to drive into the city and go to the basketball game. NPR's Brianna Scott picks up the story from here.


BRIANNA SCOTT: Gillion is a huge Thunder fan. Two years ago she and her husband announced their wedding anniversary on the Jumbotron at a game in celebration. So on March 11, 2020, she and her son were excited to go to the Utah Jazz versus Oklahoma City Thunder game that night.

GILLION: Whenever we made it to our seat, we didn't see if our neighbors were in their seats.

SCOTT: The announcement came just before tip-off.


MARIO NANNI: Fans, due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe.

GILLION: I wanted someone to pinch me and tell me, psych (ph). This is not real. I'm just playing. It never happened. It was real.


DONALD TRUMP: We will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States.

LESTER HOLT: More than 100 U.S. colleges have now announced they are suspending in-person classes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Markets in freefall this morning here in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The NBA has suspended the season.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tom Hanks revealing he and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, have tested positive for the virus.

ED THOMPSON: You're being barraged by all this news and wondering what was going to happen next.

SCOTT: Ed Thompson from Connecticut was glued to his phone that day.

THOMPSON: It was kind of like escalating horrors. Like, every day you'd see the case count make a massive jump and, you know, see something crazy in the news, like a potential meat shortage or the oil trade has dried up or something. It's surreal.

SCOTT: Thompson says he doesn't even remember his last day in the office before switching to remote work at the software development firm he works at. Stacey Pope (ph) felt just how troubling this pandemic would be before the WHO's announcement. She was planning a trip to visit her 98-year-old mother who stays at a nursing facility in Oregon. When Pope and her husband got to the airport, she says it was a ghost town.

STACEY POPE: We saw a wall of newspapers from all over the place, and each one on the cover in their own way had the stock market just - lines showing straight down. And I said to my husband, something terrible is happening, I feel (laughter). Maybe this is a mistake that we're going.

SCOTT: And things only got worse once they landed in Oregon.

POPE: They said, your mom has been in quarantine for two weeks. You can't go see her. I don't know what you're doing here. And so I remember actually starting to physically shake because I realized that everything was different than what I thought.

SCOTT: So she headed back home to New York to a new and weird normal of everyone wearing masks. Pope says that her husband and her mom recently got their first doses of the vaccine, a feeling of hope that she hasn't felt in over a year.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brianna Scott.

Of course, there were some people who saw all this coming sooner than the rest of us, people who spend their lives studying diseases and epidemics, people like Keith Wailoo. He's a historian at Princeton. He's done a lot of research about pandemics and health and disease and how it all intersects with society. He says his own alarm bells started going off in January.

KEITH WAILOO: Whatever was emerging in Wuhan, if it could not be controlled within the bounds of a city in China, it was likely to spread. That's just kind of using history as your guide.

CORNISH: But he still remembers the day the pandemic first got personal, and it was in early March. COVID was starting to spike in New York City, and his mom, who's past retirement age, was still headed downtown every day for work.

WAILOO: And I called my mother, and I said, do not go into work this week. You travel on the trains. You travel on the subway, and you work in lower Manhattan. And given your age and your comorbidities, I'm afraid that you won't make it. And so please don't go. And she didn't.

CORNISH: I called Wailoo because after a year of living with COVID, it seems clear the pandemic has changed us. And this is exactly what he studies. He says change after widespread disease is inevitable. Sometimes it's a small thing - for instance, how tuberculosis in the U.S. changed the way people think about spitting in public.

WAILOO: It's been such a long time since that's been commonplace practice across the United States. But the phenomenon of learning not to do that in the name of safeguarding others is a cultural practice that now is so ingrained that - you know, I mean, it's not that nobody does it, but it's really seen as non-hygienic.

CORNISH: And sometimes those changes are much bigger.

WAILOO: One example is the 14th century Black Death, which produced mortality - 25 million deaths - of such a scale and depopulation of such a scale that historians often point to it as a kind of demographic transformation that undermined the whole feudal system, the old feudal economic order and laid the basis for new economic systems, the rise of capitalism, et cetera.

So, you know, depending on the scale of the pandemic, you can see world-changing events like that, or you can have changes that happen in the course of cholera epidemics, which came in waves across the 19th century in the U.S., which produced things like a dedication to the Metropolitan Board of Health. We think nothing today of having a board of health or a CDC or institutions of government that are entrusted with guiding us through these kinds of calamities. Well, that wasn't a given before the 1850s or the 1860s, and that is a direct byproduct of the experience with cholera.

I'd say that one of the things that does - I would say always happens in the wake of pandemics is the the emphasis on the significant role of government. How do we actually deliver vaccines to a population? Well, you need state government. You need coordinating activity. And that is something that's likely not just to be the story of 2021, but given the fact that we're likely to be needing booster shots and grappling with variants, there will be a continual need and role for governments.

CORNISH: There are many people who have spent the last year thinking about, quote, "when things get back to normal," or when this is all over. Now that people have been living with this for a year, it's becoming more apparent that maybe things aren't going to be exactly the way they were. How do you think about that?

WAILOO: Well, I think it's unquestionable that things won't be exactly the way they were. You know, one of the things that happens with pandemics is we have this artificial idea that it will end on a certain date. But in fact, what's more likely to be the case is that the pandemic will have a very, very long tail and it will end unevenly.

You know, one of the sad realities of social inequality is that the pandemic reveals social inequality and accentuates it both in the run-up to the pandemic - that is to say, you have disproportionate deaths among people who are already in vulnerable positions. But you will also see that, and we are also seeing that, in the rollout of the vaccine. And you're also likely to see that in the unevenness that defines the end point of the pandemic itself. So the real danger is that one part of the population, the population that's privileged, declares an end to the pandemic before it actually ends for people who are not as privileged.

The face of AIDS today is a chilling reminder. AIDS has not disappeared. Even though people would like to call the AIDS pandemic over, in the United States, there's, you know, 1.2 million cases and - guess what? - disproportionately Black Americans, disproportionately Latinx Americans affected by that still-ongoing pandemic. That's the problem that I think we're still grappling with, is the desire by many to open restaurants, to return to theaters, to, you know, have baseball games when baseball season comes back again and want desperately to get back to, quote, "normal" for all kinds of reasons and to sort of downplay the possible ripple effects in terms of adverse mortality.

CORNISH: Well, historian Keith Wailoo, thank you so much for talking with us about this.

WAILOO: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Keith Wailoo of Princeton University.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAREPUSHER'S "TOMMIB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.