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The Tools at Our Disposal

Ada Palmer published a delightful, sprawling essay on comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Death / Renaissance.

This morning, I needed to read this paragraph very badly (emphasis mine):

This year, 2020, this is the first time in the history of this planet that any species has faced a pandemic knowing what it is, and how to take effective action. We aren’t taking perfect action, and we absolutely should be criticizing and condemning the many flaws—some small, some huge—in how it’s being dealt with, but there is real, efficacious action we can take. As an historian, not just of the plague of 1348, but of the plagues of 1435, and 1485, and 1494, and 1503, and 1596, and 1630, and 1656, what I see is those many generations who not only had to live through this over and over, but who had no hope that their children would ever be free of it. We know about vaccines, and that we’ll make one—it’ll take a while, and we’ll mess up various ways along the way, but none of us is afraid our grandchildren will grow up spending one year in ten locked up in their homes like this as COVID-19 spreads; we will solve it. We know we’ll solve it, and any other age in history would treasure that confidence like [a] miracle.

She goes on to enumerate all the things we have learned since the Renaissance that put us in a better situation than at any other time in history to cope with a pandemic and the upheaval it causes. There is no guarantee that we will use these tools well or in service of good ends. But possibilities and concepts exist — vaccines, social safety nets, mental health, remote real-time communication — which where not available for those who suffered through the Black Death. We can aim for better.

There are more crises and upheaval to come. Pandemics after this one are inevitable and ecological systems we depend on are destabilizing. I don’t know that I have hope or optimism exactly, because I am far from certain that we will act wisely. But I do have resolve and I vow to act as wisely as I know how.