Unprecedented? Inconceivable! Actually, Coronavirus is Neither
The Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, Yellow Fever, Spanish Influenza, and HIV/AIDS - to name just a few, are each pandemic that has ravaged the planet to a greater degree than has Covid-19 to this point
June 18, 2020
This commentary/critique/observation should not be construed, rendered, or inferred to minimize, trivialize, diminish or make light of the seriousness, gravity, and solemnity of the Coronavirus/Novel Coronavirus/Covid-19.
Please Stop, Refrain, and Put an End to Using, Adopting, or Availing Yourself of the word "UNPRECEDENTED."
My favorite book of all time is The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Mr. Goldman died in November 2018, and for those of you who didn't know him, he also wrote (among many others) Marathon Man (made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman), the screenplays for The Princess Bride, Misery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (oh, and a great, creepy book - Magic - about a ventriloquist and his murderous dummy). Many of you may be more familiar with the 1987 Rob Reiner-directed movie which starred Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal, Peter Falk, and Wallace Shawn. For those of you who have neither read the book nor watched the movie, swallow your "Okay, Boomer," put this down and read (or listen to) the book or watch the movie.
For those of you remaining who treat the book and the movie with the reverence they each deserve - and the remainder of you willing to come along for the ride - picture, if you will, a sleek boat (likely a sloop) moving at top speed towards the Cliffs of Insanity (Cliffs so sheer and high as to be unclimbable). Aboard this vessel are Vezzini, the Sicilian Uber-genius and criminal mastermind, and his crew - Inigo Montoya (the greatest swordsman that has ever lived, wielding the six-fingered sword), Fezzik (a monstrously huge person, both the strongest man and greatest grappler in the world), and their captive, Princess Buttercup (believed to be the most beautiful woman on the planet in the past hundred years). They hurtle through the water with their bounty in the fastest ship in the fleet.... when Inigo notes that they are somehow being gained upon by a pirate ship with black sails, piloted by a single occupant dressed from mask to boot all in black (hereinafter "The Man in Black"). Vezzini, being informed that a pursuit boat is actually gaining upon them, merely responds with:
The kidnappers reach the base of the Cliffs of Insanity where a rope is waiting, Fezzik is loaded up with the Princess, Inigo, and Vezzini and begins to put some serious distance between them and the Man in Black, but even though there is no one stronger than Fezzik, it becomes clear that the Man in Black is gaining on them again, Vezzini can only find one word to say:
When Fezzik successfully reaches the summit and Inigo quickly unties the rope before the Man in Black can catch up, leaving the Man in Black to certainly plummet to his death.... except that the Man in Black lets go of the rope just in time, DOESN'T FALL, and starts to free climb the unclimbable Cliffs of Insanity - what does the brilliant Sicilian have to say?
It is at this point that Inigo Montoya turns to Vezzini and says the now meme-famous response:
"YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD. I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS."
The English language is a confusing amalgam of bits and pieces of languages from all over the world. There are almost always at least a handful of synonyms for each word, and one would believe that, given the overwhelming media coverage of the Coronavirus Crisis, there would be many different ways to describe the virus and its impact on society. However, since Covid-19 landed in the United States, there has been one, and seemingly only one way that every politician, doctor, scientist, religious leader, journalist, economist, vendor, and (sadly) educator has chosen to describe the present situation:
Vezzini was wrong - the things the Man in Black was doing were not inconceivable - they were happening right in front of their eyes. The current pandemic is not "unprecedented." It is confusing, frightening, and deadly, undisputedly, but:
THERE ARE PRECEDENTS
The Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, Yellow Fever, Spanish Influenza, and HIV/AIDS - to name just a few, are each pandemic that has ravaged the planet to a greater degree than has Covid-19 to this point. The "Plague of Justinian" was believed to have resulted in the death of half of the entire world's population, and the Black Death to have killed 25 million in Europe alone. The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1920 is believed to have caused the death of between 25 and 50 million people worldwide and nearly three-quarters of a million Americans.
Second, even if this was a "first time ever" type of event, or even a "once in a lifetime" disaster, there are multitudinous, copious, various and sundry other ways to describe such a situation, a small sampling of which are: unique, unheard-of, novel, and for the snobby - "sui generis."
THIS COUNTRY IS BUILT UPON PRECEDENTS
The United States Supreme Court, nearly since its inception, has relied upon the doctrine of stare decisis - the doctrine of precedent (the actual translation being "to stand by things decided." The Supreme Court has stated that stare decisis "promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process." Kimble vs. Marvel Enterprises. It demonstrates how important applying lessons learned in the past to current events allows us to build upon previous successes, but also to ensure that the public sees that there is sound, logical, unbiased basis for crucial, and often intrusive actions such as quarantining, limiting travel and wearing face masks.
These are extraordinary times, and difficult decisions need to be made. Even before this pandemic, the United States has grown more divisive, fractious, and discordant (but not "polarizing" - look it up, and don't even get me started on "literally" being an acceptable synonym for "figuratively" or I will have my mother explain the difference between "infer" and "imply", between "which" and "that," and how there is not a "g" at the end of the word "orangutan.")
You may think that Governor Newsom, in quickly directing everyone to "stay and shelter," acted intelligently and proactively, and in doing so saved lives. Or, you might think that he overreacted, that by keeping everyone indoors, the resulting unemployment and damage to the economy will prove to be just as deadly and devastating as any virus could be. Or, you might think that "it sucks being inside and why should I care, I'm not 75." You may believe that "it is tough staying at home with my husband/wife/significant other - my sidekick is getting angry." Perhaps you are thinking that if "I am not able to see the new Marvel movie in the theatre with popcorn and soda the size of an economy car, and NOW, I will explode."
People are losing their jobs. Crime is rising. Family members will get sick and die. Americans have actually taken to the street to protest wearing a mask - a piece of protective gear designed to slow the spread of a virus that by current estimate, is being spread by individuals that in great degree have no visible symptoms of the illness when they are the most contagious. The President of the United States is ridiculing people for wearing masks and is self-medicating with a disproven malaria drug and suggesting that people consume cleaning products and have ultraviolet light beamed inside their bodies.
Scientists, Health Care Providers, Law Enforcement Representatives, Flight Attendants, and many other agencies have been urging the Federal Government and their State Governments to implement and enforce plans regarding social distancing, quarantining, and protective gear since the end of March. This isn't guesswork - when prior pandemics demolished the population, all sorts of protocols were tried and tested, and the results recorded. When the Spanish Influenza crippled the globe in four separate waves, it became apparent that certain things worked, and certain things didn't. What worked? Quarantining. Social Distancing. Minimizing large gatherings of people. Wearing masks. Improving and expanding medical facilities. Stockpiling protective equipment. Preparing for the next pandemic.
There has been a lot of talk about vaccines and miracle cures. There are currently seven known Coronaviruses that infect humans. Four of them are found in people who have what is called "the common cold." The other three are SARS-1, MERS-Cov (which was discovered in 2017 and has been on the WHO "risk of future pandemic" list, and SARS-2 (Covid-19). There is not a vaccine for any of them. Nearly everyone has heard the phrase "no cure for the common cold," and many may be aware of Benjamin Franklin's idiom "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
I've long been a fan of legendary UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden, who said:
"FAILING TO PREPARE IS PREPARING TO FAIL."