Dr. Robin’s Covid-19 Updates

Covid and the Train of History

Lessons From the Past, Hope for the Future

Photo by Frankie Lopez on Unsplash

I’m writing this on Saturday March 6, 2021. Exactly one year ago — on March 6, 2020 — I wrote my first Covid post.

Everybody has their own story of how they realized what Covid was going to be.

For me, it started in late February as friends and colleagues in New York City and Italy sent out deeply frightening first-hand reports about what they were seeing: every night my in-box filled up with horror.

For me, it solidified on March 2. I had taken a quick trip to Seattle. When I flew out on Feb 28, they had no Covid cases (I checked before my trip). By the time I left Seattle on March 2, five people were dead and then thirteen. I remember my heart went sideways in my chest when I saw the empty TSA line at the Seattle airport.

On Friday March 6 I read another horrid email from Italy about rationing ventilators. On the street, life proceeded apace. In my living room all I could hear was the enormous shrieking of a big giant locomotive heading straight for everyone I loved.

In some kind of social media desperation, I wrote a post to my neighbors on my town’s Facebook list:

“My Arlington friends, there is now absolutely no question that we are facing a major life-altering epidemic and all of our lives are going to be changed for a while and for a few of us our lives are going to be threatened. With that in mind I feel compelled to post that the CDC is now recommending that older adults with major medical issues (heart, lung, and kidney disease) “stay at home as much as possible.”

“PLEASE start checking on your neighbors and each other. This is not a test.”

In the ensuing weeks I wrote a couple of “informational” and “OMG Stay Home!” posts. I kept expecting the CDC or somebody would step forward and explain the science of what we going through, but that never really happened so I stayed.

And here we are, 52 posts later. And 520,000 deaths. And ten million people unemployed and eight gazillion divorces and ten jillion kids who more or less lost a year and such a surge in anti-depressant prescriptions. So much anguish. But here we are.

I became a student of epidemics during my medical school years, when I, a new naive medical student, helped take care of scores of young men with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and LA.

It was a lot to cope with. I was so young, and so were they, and in those days AIDS patients could die overnight, and often with awful and ghastly deaths.

I needed to find ways to put the suffering I was witnessing into some kind of context so I began to study plagues.

Learning about the pandemics and patterns our ancestors experienced somehow helped bring a little sense to the senselessness of all those beautiful boys dying in our hospital beds.

I audited lectures and read a lot of books and wrote a big paper on Yellow Fever and learned that certain patterns are repeated in the majority of epidemics, and almost all of these things have happened to us with Covid:

  1. There are always clues showing a pandemic is imminent, and there are always people trying to shout out an alarm, and they are always ignored at first.
  2. Diseases usually spread along travel paths or trade routes.
  3. When widespread infections become obvious, there is a huge outcry demanding explanations and fixes.
  4. There is always blame, endless blame, and finger-pointing.
  5. There is always suspicion and paranoia, and usually racism, about the place from which the disease may have originated.
  6. There is often shame or judgment aimed at the ill, with the implication that they brought it upon themselves through their conduct or their moral failings.
  7. Pandemics always show schisms in societies. They inevitably reveal the underserved.
  8. Racial disparities are almost always present.
  9. At the start of most pandemics, people expect the bug to behave like the most recent pandemic bug. They are almost always wrong.
  10. There are always surprises about the bug.
  11. With Covid, the surprises were revealed with jaw-dropping speed. The biggest surprise by far was the asymptomatic transmission; it changed everything.
  12. Often the remedies designed to slow down the pandemic cause tremendous harm.
  13. There is virtually always a poor political response.
  14. Sometimes a whole pandemic is ignored — not even named — for amazingly long periods of time.
  15. In the US, states make final decisions about public health policies.
  16. In the distant past, towns made all the decisions; before that neighborhoods.
  17. There is always a push/pull between voluntary and enforced hygiene guidelines.
  18. There have always been anti-maskers.
  19. There have always been anti-vaxxers.
  20. There are always conspiracy theories.
  21. The biggest fights are always about closing the schools.
  22. We only fund what we fear.
  23. It usually takes a while for that to happen.

So how have we responded while this big giant locomotive has been barreling through the tracks of our lives?

We have responded the same way our ancestors did during their bubonic plagues and smallpox epidemics, the same way those beautiful young men did during the worst of the HIV/AIDS days: with terror, hope, horror, panic, determination, blame, strength, anxiety, artistry, selfishness, self-sacrifice, self-knowledge, humor, hope; with unspeakable acts of cruelty and kindness and valor and grace; with fury, empathy, hope; with resignation, resilience, ridicule, wit, bitterness, hope; sometimes all of these on the same day, sometimes all in a single hour, and the greatest of these is hope; we always have hope.

At the end of each epidemic, there is sometimes a period of introspection or insight; it’s usually pretty brief. But maybe this time we will, in our age of information, be better at tallying up the Lessons Learned.

But then history shows we will go back to our regularly scheduled lives — back to as normal as it gets after difficult loss. Our kids will restart their educations and social lives. We will grow our families. Our economies will gradually recover. Perhaps great art or literature will ensue; or sometimes the aftershocks of pandemics include major political shifts.

But always, always, pandemics are followed by giant leaps in scientific knowledge. Already we see the science that is saving us advancing in ways we could never have dreamed of on March 6, 2020.

My hope is the science will give us the capacity to hear the next shrieking locomotive, to recognize it and leap into action before it crashes into our living rooms. My hope is we will create a dazzlingly smart brakeman who pulls the huge switch it takes to have that locomotive go sliding off to a side track, careening, slowing, stopped. That is my hope.

Because it’s the one characteristic of every pandemic since Biblical times and beyond: there is always hope.

{Robin Schoenthaler, MD is a Boston-based cancer doctor who has been writing straightforward fact-based no-blame-no-rumors-all-science-all-the-time essays about Covid-19 since March 2020.}

Covid-Translator. Cancer doc: ~Three decades at MGH. Writer and storyteller: Moth Grand Slam Champion. Mom. www.DrRobin.org, @robinshome, robinshome2@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store