The grievance and torment of holidaymakers who had dreamed of a perfect holiday were tossed up in a tempest of tragic proportions.
Luxury liners like the Grand Princess, Diamond Princes, California Cruise Ship, MS Amsterdam held their passengers captive, isolated in their rooms, meals brought to them, a two-minute walk on deck, 6 feet distance from other passengers: this is a holiday in hell.
The losses are enormous. The death toll keeps rising. The cruise industry was hit hard. The cruisers were experiencing their worst nightmare.
What a way to start a new year.
Who to blame? No one. All the dreams, plans, and expenses turned to ashes, there is no one to blame, accuse or reprimand. Is it an act of God? Nature? War? No. It is coronavirus, or Covid-19, and the World Health Organisation believes it is deadlier than the flu. So many similarities in symptoms and deaths, our memory takes us back to the influenza pandemic or H1N1 that wiped out 50-100 million lives a century ago.
The Great War (1914-1918) was winding down. Peace at last. Joyous families were expecting their loved ones home. Instead, tens, hundreds, thousands struggled for air. Some fell in the street as blood gushed from their noses and mouths. They were struck with the influenza virus.
Most of humanity felt the deadly effects of this strain of flu as it circled the globe following the path of its carriers. Its origins were unknown. That was over 100 years ago.
We all know the ferociousness of the coronavirus, but to compare it to a century ago was unthinkable.
Despite the tremendous progress made in virology, microbiology. Immunology, pharmacology, epidemiology, vaccinology and all the other “ologies” you can think of, not to mention preventive medicine, probiotics, and the rest, many 100-year-old questions are still largely unanswered.
For decades scientists debated the origin of the Great War epidemic.
A new research by historian Mark Humphries of Memorial University of Newfoundland has had the approval of many historians.
French and British officials shipped 94,000 labourers from Northern China to southern England and France across Canada in sealed train cars. So desperate was the need for labour that in 1918 ships loaded with thousands left the port of Wehaiwei for Vancouver. Little did the Allies know that an outbreak of respiratory infections were causing dozens of deaths in villages along the Chinese great wall in 1917. The illness spread 500 kilometres in six weeks.
Writing in the January issue of the journal War in History, Humphries acknowledges his hypothesis “awaits confirmation by viral samples from flu victims”. Such evidence would lead the disease’s origin to one location: China.
Jeffrey Taunberger of the National Institute of Allergy, writes “Keep your eye on China as a source of emerging diseases.” He points to Avian flu, SARS and now coronavirus.
It cannot be ignored that coronavirus is a variant of influenza. Influenza has killed more people than any other disease in history. It is by far the deadliest.
Derived from the Italian word for “influence”, it ravaged communities around the globe. What was killing them? No one knew.
It was not until 1933 that two British scientists concluded that the cause must be a new class of disease. Finally, in 1940 the newly invented electron microscope took a picture of the influenza virus and for the first time in history, we could not only name, but see the virus.
How come we had never known about this very little organism? Why is modern medicine unable to control it, eradicate it, thus saving so many lives?
Why do we have viruses at all?
Viruses are proteins and genetic material that survive and replicate within their environment, inside another life form. In the absence of their host, viruses are unable to replicate or even survive for long.
Why not get rid of it? What if we remove all viruses from our bodies? We will be home-free.
It cannot be done. Our genome is littered with ancient viral DNA that integrated in our genes.
Some four billion years ago they may have been precursors to the first cells and served as the critical bridge between nonlife and life.
Scientists tell us that there would never have been any life here at all if not for viruses.
We are constantly swimming within a thick endless sea of viruses.
Not a happy thought but inevitable. Live with them, yes, but let us try to protect ourselves from the harm they can inflict on all living things.
We are now familiar with H1N1, though we wish we were not.
Unfortunately, H1N1 lineage has evolved continually since WWI, under our very noses.
While our present concern is the coronavirus, our constant concern should be the wickedest virus of all, H1N1. It mutates, appears, reappears, kills, develops diseases, and there is no escape. At least we know what should be done to lessen its severity.
Avoid crowds. And by all means do not get stuck on a boat. There is no way out.
“Confront disease at its onset.”
Aulus Persius Flaccus (34-62 AD)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly