The skeletons move through a barren landscape towards the few helpless and terrified people who still live. The scene, imagined in a mid-16th century painting, “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, illuminated the psychic impact of the bubonic plague.
It was a terror that lingered even as the disease receded, historians say.
The waves of destruction from Covid-19 have inflicted their own kind of desperation on humanity in the 21st century, leaving many wondering when the pandemic will end.
“We tend to think of pandemics and epidemics as episodic,” said Allan Brandt, historian of science and medicine at Harvard University. “But we live in the Covid-19 era, not the Covid-19 crisis. There will be a lot of substantial and persistent changes. We won’t look back and say, “It was a terrible time, but it’s over.” We will be dealing with many ramifications of Covid-19 for decades, for decades. “
Especially in the months before the Delta variant became dominant, the pandemic looked like it was almost over.
“When the vaccines first came out and we started getting injections into our own arms, many of us felt transformed both physically and emotionally,” said Dr. Jeremy Greene, medical historian at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We had a deliberate desire to translate this as’ The pandemic is over for me. “”
He added: “It was a willful delusion.”
And it’s a lesson in history that is often forgotten, said Frank Snowden, historian of medicine at Yale University: how difficult it is to declare that a pandemic is over.
It may not be over even when physical illness, measured in terms of illness and mortality, has eased significantly. This could continue as the economy recovers and life returns to a semblance of normalcy. The lingering psychological shock of having lived in prolonged fear of serious illness, isolation and painful death takes a long time to wear off.
Some illnesses, like the 1918 flu, have receded. Others, like the bubonic plague, remained brooding. HIV is still with us, but with drugs to prevent and treat it. In each case, the trauma of those affected persisted long after the looming threat of infection and death had passed.
At the very least, the Covid-19 virus has humbled experts who have already confidently predicted its course, regardless of the lessons of history.
“What we are experiencing now is a new cycle of collective consternation,” said Dr Greene – a consternation which arose out of frustration at the the inability to control the virus, the fury of those vaccinated against those who refuse to be vaccinated and the disillusionment that incredibly effective vaccines have yet to bring life back to normal.
No matter when or how pandemics diminish, they change people’s perception of time.
“A pandemic like Covid-19 is a violation of the progressive narrative,” that medicine advances and diseases are conquered, Dr Greene said.
As the pandemic continues, the days merge as time seems to blur and slow down without forward momentum.
In past pandemics, such as today, powerful anti-science movements have hampered public health and disease decline.
As soon as Edward Jenner introduced the first smallpox vaccine in 1798, posters appeared in England showing humans who had been vaccinated “growing horns and hooves,” said Dr Snowden.
“In 19th century Britain the most important movement was the anti-vaccine movement,” he added. And with resistance from vaccine-resistant, diseases that should have been tamed persisted.
But the difference between vaccine skeptics and pandemic disinformation yesterday and today, historians have said, is the rise of social media, which is amplifying debates and lies in a truly new way.
With HIV, Dr Brandt said, “there were conspiracy theories and a lot of misinformation, but there has never been a delivery system like Covid-19.”
Other pandemics, like this one, have been hampered by what Dr. Snowden calls “excessive pride,” proud certainties from experts that add to the frustrations of understanding how and when it will abate.
With Covid, prominent experts first said the masks did not help prevent infection, only to then reverse. Epidemiologists have confidently published models of how the pandemic is progressing, and what it would take to achieve collective immunity, to be wrong. Investigators said the virus had spread over surfaces, then later said no, it was spread by tiny droplets in the air. They said the virus was unlikely to transform substantially, then warned of the greater transmissibility of the Delta variant.
“We have paid a heavy price for this,” said Dr Snowden. Many people have lost faith in authorities amid constantly evolving guidelines and strategies that have weakened efforts to control the virus.
Jonathan Moreno, a historian of science and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said ending Covid would be analogous to cancer in remission – still there, but not as deadly.
“You are never healed,” he said. “It’s always in the background.”