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Lifestyle: We failed to learn the lessons of history

08 May 2020

Now we are paying for it.

As taxpayers we keep a standing army, navy and air force but we have not developed a process for managing a pandemic ahead of time nor maintain a reserve of equipment to use at the first sign of a viral or bacterial outbreak.

The taxpayer has not invested in large-scale research into managing the next virus or germ that raises its (ugly) head.

I shouldn’t say ‘ugly’ because we are a walking cornucopia of viruses and bacteria and are dependent upon them for our very existence.

Virologists tell us that normally everything is in balance until a new virus jumps from a mammal or bird to humans for which we are ill-equipped to manage.

What shocked me this week was the thought that we are all finding Covid-19 so draconian and unusual. It should not be the case. This is a fairly regular scenario that we should have been expecting if we look back in history.

Unhelpful germs and viruses have taken parts of humanity by storm on an irregular basis since records began. They have never not been with us.

paris pandemic
Photo: A wood engraving of a temporary tent hospital in Paris during the flu epidemic of 1889-90. Credit Everett Historical | Shutterstock

Plagues and pandemics have shaped history creating winners and losers. At this  point, the USA appears to be a loser while China appears to be a winner, even if you take the numbers of cases and deaths at this stage with a grain of salt.

Eleven years ago, in 2009, the world had a dry run for this pandemic. Swine flu, a variation of the Spanish Flu, the H1N1 virus, infected 1.4 billion people worldwide, including 3,175 in New Zealand, with 19 deaths locally. Three students from Rangitoto College in North Shore City, returning from a language study trip to Mexico, bought the first cases of Swine Flu to New Zealand.

Seven years before that, in 2002, there was an outbreak of a new coronavirus in southern China, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. There were no confirmed cases in New Zealand but there were 8,439 recorded cases worldwide with 812 deaths (a 10% death rate).

The American health and political system will come under a lot of pressure in the aftermath of Covid-19. China has sort of coped with Covid-19, America has not. There is strong evidence that the US coped with Swine Flu in 2009 better than it has coped with Covid-19. Official preparedness for pandemics in the United States went backwards over the past ten years, many claim. The key difference in the response has been put down to leadership at the top. Guess who was President of the United States in 2009?  Who is President now?

There are likely to be repercussions for the United States over their bungled response to Covid-19 although whether it changes the course of history is still to be seen.

Historical record of plagues and pandemics

Adapted from, 20 of the worst pandemics in history. In cooperation with ALL ABOUT HISTORY 


Dealing with the aftermath of a pandemic becomes a political problem involving the will of taxpayers to do better next time and it requires a coordinated international response. Many countries are too small to act on their own and an outbreak in one country quickly becomes a world-wide problem. Therefore, international cooperation is essential.  As a planet we should be geared up for these events.

The list of plagues above does not include many of the other viruses and bacteria humans have to cope with including: the Marburg virus which is similar to Ebola, Rabies (if not treated the death rate is 100%), Hantavirus (caught from infected mice), Dengue (carried by mosquitoes), rotavirus (causes diarrhea in children, a deadly killer in the developing world; the WHO estimates that 453,000 children under five died in 2008 alone from rotavirus although a vaccine is now available) and a number of super-bugs developing resistance to anti-biotics.

Interestingly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was established in London in 1948 to collect and study influenza viruses and to share their information world-wide. Now we see the biggest economy in the world, the United States, withdrawing its financial support to the WHO in the middle of a pandemic, dashing what is our best hope for international cooperation.

Getting ready for the next pandemic must start now. The ideal response is bottom-up, with each one of us taking responsibility to act politically, to ensure that the lessons we have begun to learn from Covid-19 don’t stop.

We must engage the world in preparing for the next pandemic. A flu virus would be a logical candidate.

Keep asking great questions …


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