Has mankind become so great, having conquered the oceans and now exploring the galaxies? Have we become so powerful that we can threaten the world with destruction at the touch of a nuclear button? Have we become so brilliant that we can replace humans with robots and clone God’s creatures? If so, why has a virus, so tiny it is invisible to the naked eye, sent us cowering in our homes and wringing our hands with despair as we see thousands among us being killed?
The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is making mankind realize, once again, how insignificant we are in God’s universe — vulnerable to a tiny virus, killed like flies or crushed underfoot like ants.
The past few months must have given us a lesson in humility. But was there a greater lesson in humility than what we in Christendom commemorated last week? The Lenten Season and the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, coinciding with the curse of COVID-19, has given us a stark reminder of our weakness and vulnerability among God’s creatures. But it has also been a reassurance of our importance in the eyes of God.
Knowing our weaknesses, God sent His only Son, to save us because we are incapable of saving ourselves. Christ assumed the same weaknesses and allowed Himself to be scourged and crucified as contrition for our sins.
Jesus had a crown of thorns forced on his head, drawing blood from his scalp and brows. Similarly, we are now being scourged by a virus named after its crown-like spikes.
We are bearing our own crown of thorns. And yet so little else is demanded of us. Like the Jews on that fateful night, we have been told to take refuge in our homes during the Passover of the Angel of Death. We are also told to wash our hands and be clean.
But there is so much more in us that needs to be cleansed. And, because of human frailties, we will be unclean again. And again — like the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years because of repeated transgressions.
COVID-19 is not the first virus to ravage us. In 1976, the Ebola virus threatened the world, but it was contained, although it continues to infect people, mainly those in Africa. In the fall of 2002, the world was alarmed by the spread of SARS-CoV or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a type of coronavirus. Thankfully, the epidemic was brought under control in less than a year through the speedy action by governments and health authorities. In 2014, another type of coronavirus called MERS-CoV or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome emerged in Saudi Arabia. The impact on the US and the rest of the world was minimal, although it took a heavy toll in the Middle East.
Over the centuries, the world has been scourged by cholera, the bubonic plague, several strains of flu, and smallpox — making the current death toll seem small.
In 1918, the Spanish flu decimated Europe and America, claiming over 50 million lives — more than the fatalities in World War I, which was waged during the same period. In 1968, another strain of flu — H3N2, said to be an offshoot of the H2N2 or the Asian flu — was reported in Hong Kong. It then spread across Asia, including the Philippines, as well as Europe, Australia, India, and the US. The World Health Organization placed the number of fatalities at approximately 2 million, 69,800 of those in the US alone. An estimated 500,00 victims were residents of Hong Kong.
Cholera took a heavy toll in six waves. The first, in 1817, lasted six years. It started in India, due to contaminated rice, quickly spreading to Myanmar and Sri Lanka. By 1820, the epidemic had spread to Thailand, Indonesia (killing 100,000 people on the island of Java alone), and the Philippines. The disease then made its way to China in 1820 and Japan in 1822, brought by infected people on ships. The disease eventually made its way to Europe, Turkey, Syria and Southern Russia. The pandemic dissipated six years after it began. Authorities believe it was because of the severe winter of 1823.
The second cholera pandemic began around 1829. Also originating in India, it spread along trade and military routes to Eastern and Central Asia and the Middle East. By the autumn of 1830, the disease had made it to Moscow. By 1831, the pandemic had spread throughout Europe, including Great Britain. By 1832 through 1833, the cholera pandemic had also made it to the US and Latin America. The pandemic eventually ceased with the strict imposition of health and hygiene protocols, but it would reemerge in many countries for nearly two decades. The third cholera outbreak struck between 1852-1860, also spreading beyond Asia. The fourth and fifth cholera pandemics — occurring between 1863 and 1875 and 1881 to 1896, respectively — were less severe than previous pandemics, but also took a heavy toll. Between 1872 and 1873 Hungary suffered 190,000 deaths. The sixth cholera pandemic (1899-1923) did not strike too severely, particularly in Western Europe and North America, due to advances in public health and sanitation. But the disease still ravaged India, Russia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. By 1923, cholera cases had dissipated throughout much of the world, except India where it killed more than half a million people between 1918 and 1919.
In 1889-1890, a flu pandemic — called the Russian flu or the Asiatic flu — struck three separate and distant locations, Bukhara in Central Asia (Turkestan), northwestern Canada, and Greenland. Before long it had spread across the globe. In the era of bacteriology, this was considered the first true epidemic, and much was learned from analyzing its cause. But it still claimed a death toll of one million.
From 1346 to 1353, the bubonic plague, called the Black Death, ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia, with a death toll estimated at between 75 and 200 million people. The widely varying estimates were due to lack of sophisticated tracking techniques at the time., It was thought to have been caused by fleas on the rats aboard merchant ships. As these ships reached various ports, the plague proliferated, devastating three continents.
The Plague of Justinian, a forerunner of the bubonic plague, killed some 25 million in Europe from 541-542 AD, mainly afflicting Emperor Justinian’s Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean port cities. At its most severe, it killed up to 5,000 people a day in Constantinople alone.
The Antonine Plague, (named after the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) was either smallpox or measles. At any rate, it claimed a toll of 5 million in Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy in 165 AD.
Will the coronavirus be the last pandemic in our lifetime? We can only turn to God for mercy and to men of learning to find a cure. As thousands of our fellowmen die, and as we ourselves face the threat of death, we realize that we are powerless alone. We need others to help us find a cure. We also realize how easily mankind can be diminished — and that we may be diminished ourselves, because we are a part of mankind. Indeed, John Donne’s poem gains new meaning for us:
“No Man Is an Island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.