In the season of Thanksgiving in what is destined to go down in history as the era of the COVID, maybe it is time to give thanks for the time and place in which we live.
The pandemic wrought by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is today scaring so many in this country mainly because it has disrupted the safety and security to which we have become accustomed.
Think of how blessed that makes us.
As we sit down to socially distanced dinners around tables missing family and friends who might otherwise grace the day, maybe it’s time to recognize this isn’t Afghanistan or Syria or parts of Africa where death could come tomorrow because someone decides you’re a member of the wrong tribe.
Or Nazi Germany where being Jewish became a death sentence in the 1930s and ’40s, or Bosnia in the 1990s, which is not long ago, where tens of thousands of people were randomly killed for the crime of being Muslim.
It would be nice if those places were the exception and the way Americans live today was the norm, but for most of human history, those places were the norm and the way Americans live today the exception.
Random death coming quickly from any angle at any time was the nature of human existence from the beginning. Only in the last 50 years have we as Americans come to live in such a nice, safe world we expect death to creep up on us instead of arriving suddenly and unexpectedly.
Yes, the unexpected still sometimes happens. More than 36,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But in a country of nearly 335 million people, that is such a small number the deaths went largely unnoticed except to the family and friends of the dead.
Not so COVID-19, the disease spawned by SARS-CoV-2.
COVID-19 has now killed about seven and a half times as many people over the span of about nine months. In some cities, freezer vans have been rolled into position to store the bodies.
All of this has scared the bejesus out of many. Too many among us now know, or know of, someone who went into the hospital one day and a few weeks later came out in a coffin.
And we are simply not used to death in this way.
We are conditioned to expect death to come slowly with the announcement that we have an illness that is generally treatable to degrees great or small, a disease that is destined to kill us for sure because life itself is a death sentence.
But not kill us within days or the matter of a week or two.
The lifetime odds the average American will die of heart disease are one in six and of cancer one in seven, according to the National Safety Council’s Injury Facts website, but these aren’t deaths waiting around the corner.
Most of these deaths come slowly, usually with age, and with well-established treatments for dragging out the time between life and death. Sometimes even delaying it for so long that people are declared “cured.”
If you go to a doctor tomorrow because of shortness of breath and are diagnosed with Class I or Class II heart failure, you’re likely to be put on medication and given instruction on how to change your lifestyle to live for years, according to the American Heart Association.
If you go to the doctor and the diagnosis is one of some forms of cancer, you might be among the lucky ones “cured.” Cyclist Lance Armstrong was one of those. His testicular cancer nearly killed him.
He was saved by modern medicine, learned the power of modern drugs, and went on to win the Tour de France seven times only to have the titles taken away because he’d put his knowledge of modern drugs to use as a professional cyclist.
Armstrong is now 45 years old, and if his Strava data can be believed, he would appear to be one of the fittest 40-somethings in the country. Still, he will eventually die because that is the fate of all living things.
As Americans, however, we expect the end to come in established ways. We don’t expect it to overpower our plans for the near future. We do not live those sorts of lives anymore.
In Alaska, for most of human history, the quote-unquote “future” was defined as simply surviving another winter because winters were too often grim times with food in short supply.
No place for old men
In a paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, the National Park Service’s Karen Mudar calculated that more than 90 percent of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people living on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea died in the famine of 1878-1880.
This is the way life was; it was hard. There are reasons the average lifespan of a man was less than 54 years only a century ago. It wasn’t that some people didn’t live into their 80s and 90s in 1920; it was that so many never made it past childhood or adolescence or young adulthood.
Nature managed to hold us in check for a long time. Gerontologist Caleb E. Finch estimated that for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution the human lifespan stayed in the range of 30 to 40 years, and then everything changed.
Man beat back nature with “improvements in hygiene, nutrition, and medicine during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that reduced mortality from infections at all ages,” Finch wrote in what is considered the definitive paper on the evolution of the human lifespan.
I have family history here. My mother had scarlet fever as a child, which weakened her heart and led to her premature death at age 70. I myself had pneumonia as a child and still remember picking off the walls of my parent’s bedroom the giant spiders my delirious imagination had placed there.
That was in the 1950s. Deaths from pneumonia and influenza – similar infectious lung diseases – averaged around 50 deaths per 100,000 people in that decade and the next, according to the website Statista. Those deaths had been reduced to less than a third the number by the 2010s.
We got pretty comfortable thinking nature had been well penned. The Centers for Disease Control thought the U.S. had a bad flu season when an estimated 51,000 people died in 2014-2015.
That’s about the same number of deaths as are attributed to suicide in this country each year, and a tiny fraction of the more than 655,000 deaths from heart disease and nearly 600,000 from cancer each year, according to the CDC.
We are, however, accustomed to those latter deaths, and to the deaths from flu for that matter.
COVID-19 is something new. COVID-19 is nature strikes back. COVID-19 is a blaring reminder that we’re not in control.
Or at least we don’t feel like control even if, in some ways, we’re more in control than we have been with the diseases that have been killing us for decades.
That Safety Council list on the odds of dying gives you a one in 25 chance of falling victim to a preventable disease. Heart disease is on that list as are other diseases almost all of which require you make sacrifices: you have to exercise, keep your weight in check, eat right, and avoid that tobacco you might find enjoyable.
These are tough things for many to do. Look around you. A third of the country is overweight. It has been killing us slowly for a long time and now, in too many cases, it is killing us quickly with COVID-19 raging.
But the thing is COVID-19 is among the easiest of the deadly diseases to prevent. All you have to do is stay away from other people and places crowded with humanity. It is a virus you mainly catch from breathing air contaminated by others.
Yes, there is a chance you could catch it from a surface someone else contaminated with SARS-CoV-2, but the odds there appear very low, possibly less than the one in 1,121 odds you will drown.
It’s hard to drown if you stay out of the water. It’s equally hard to catch COVID-19 if you stay away from people. We should be thankful that we can personally minimize our risk.
Granted, for the extraverts among us, this might make for a difficult time. But COVID can be avoided, and there are indications that for whatever reasons, the odds of your surviving if you do catch it are continuing to improve.
Two graphs from much-talked-about Sweden probably say as much as anything in that regard. Far more people in Sweden are catching the disease now than in the spring, but far fewer are dying.
Why? Maybe most of the most vulnerable died back in April and May. Maybe the better testing is finding more asymptomatic cases that went unnoticed before. Maybe more of those catching the diseases now are in the 40 and younger age groups that have had far higher survival rate since the beginning of the pandemic. Maybe the virus itself, which has been rapidly mutating ever since it first infected humans, has evolved into a less deadly form in Sweden.
Nobody knows. We’re still early in this battle and much is lost in the fog of war, but humankind is fighting back. And we should all give thanks we are now able to do that in ways our parents – even the parents of some barely old enough to read this – couldn’t have imagined.
And especially we should give thanks that we live in a time when life – at least in this country – is easier than it has ever been in human history, and easier than it still is in many parts of the world today.