How devastating pandemics change us

Deadly outbreaks have plagued societies for centuries. But they can lead to medical breakthroughs—if we learn the right lessons from them.

The body of a suspected COVID-19 victim lies in an Indonesian hospital. After the patient died, nurses wrapped the body in layers of plastic and applied disinfectant to prevent the spread of the virus.
Photograph by JOSHUA IRWANDI

On a Sunday early in March, as the COVID-19 outbreak was racing across the planet, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Pike pitched and rolled en route to the cruise ship Grand Princess, waiting 14 miles off the coast of California. The cutter was delivering a medical disaster team to separate the sick from the seemingly healthy among the 3,500 people aboard and prepare to bring them ashore. On the Pike, Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist with decades of experience in ‘hot zones’ everywhere, waited with his team, he says, ‘unheroically’ vomiting.

Shortly before sunset, the Pike approached a tender lowered from the Grand Princess. Callahan, age 57, and his team, still seasick, were now also half-deafened and blinded in full biocontainment gear. One by one, they made the leap first to the tender, and then, as the boat banged against the hull of the 188-foot-tall cruise ship, they leaped again onto a ladder and climbed up the hull to begin their work.

The entire world at that moment was also taking a leap into the unknown. Or rather, into the forgotten. Epidemics always have afflicted humans, and pandemics since we first sprawled across the globe. They have taught us important lessons—if only we could manage to remember them in our exhaustion and relief after danger has passed us by. New pandemics such as COVID-19 have a way of reminding us how easy it is for us to infect one another, especially those we love. How fear of contagion forces us apart. How devastating isolation can be, and yet how the sick often must die miserably and alone. Above all, the new pandemic has reminded us how much we’ve always depended on a small, brave band of people like Callahan—we’ll come back to him—who risk their lives fighting diseases.

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