What we don’t know can hurt us, and what we don’t know is whether mutations of coronavirus have put humanity in greater risk than we now understand.
That’s the bottom line for John Barry of New Orleans, historian of the tragic Spanish flu epidemic a century ago.
“If we allow the virus additional opportunities to mutate, it will have more opportunities to become the worst version of itself,” Barry writes in The Washington Post.
For Barry, the reasons for caution are that the waves of infections in the 1918-19 pandemic were more distinct than we’ve experienced in the past year. In subsequent waves, death rates soared, particularly among young people.
The soldiers fighting World War I were among the victims remembered today, but there were also high percentages of others who died.
The Metropolitan Life insurance company found that more than 3% of factory workers died, and more than 6% of coal miners. That is a mortality rate that put’s today’s coronavirus in the shade, however tragic our losses have been in the past year.
The good news, Barry said, is that while variants have emerged for today’s virus none have proved as catastrophic as the second wave of Spanish flu. And it is a tribute to modern science that virologists predicted that today’s coronavirus would mutate only slowly, and that research has been borne out.
“There is no reason to expect that this virus will suddenly turn into 1918. There are limits as to how far it can mutate,” Barry wrote. “But the more people who abandon masks and social distancing, the more infections can be expected — and the more variants will emerge.”
With about 10% of Americans vaccinated to date, clearly there remain vast opportunities for spreading today’s virus and, perhaps, encouraging its further development. Some variants are already shown to be more easily transmitted among people.
Barry makes the argument that mask-wearing remains important and that governments — looking at you, Texas and Mississippi — rescinding restrictions too quickly are taking a big risk.
“We know masks decrease transmission. Lifting a masking order not only means more people will get sick and die. It also gives the virus more rolls of the dice (for mutations),” Barry wrote. “That is a fact.”
In Louisiana, we’ve suffered from the severe economic fallout from coronavirus restrictions. For New Orleans’ tourism economy, those have been particularly tough consequences for many families.
What does Barry’s piece suggest to us? For one thing, we know that if infections surge again in Texas or Mississippi or both, our state could be severely affected, again.
Our leadership in Louisiana has been eager to reopen but cautiously. And we suspect that even our friends to the east and west will find that many people are going to continue to mask up. Government restrictions are one thing but the response of consumers to the disease is likely to be focused on safety for a while longer.
Masking up harms no one and can protect many.