Previous pandemics devastated civilizations. Will science save us now?

Already, COVID-19 has spread across the world. We have seen massive funeral pyres in India and acres of new graves in Africa and Brazil. The World Health Organization is urging wealthier nations to do more to share the vaccine, saying the pandemic won’t be over anywhere until it is over everywhere.

History bears this out. Diseases spread wherever there are humans. The so-called Black Death or bubonic plague of the mid-14th century moved along the trade routes of Asia to North Africa and Europe, reaching Scotland, Wales and Ireland. More than 75 million people died — in some regions, amounting to more than 60% of the entire population.

Last century, toward the end of the First World War in 1918, the Spanish flu started among soldiers who lived in crowded quarters. The disease spread quickly throughout the world, reaching Alaska, and extending to remote villages, where it was horribly devastating. Worldwide, an estimated 20 million to 50 million people died.

Unlike today, there was no vaccine against the Spanish flu, but wearing masks and staying home were strongly advised. When the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, the whole nation was joyful and many gathered to celebrate. The result: a new surge of cases.

Since then, we have made immense progress in the war against disease. In the 20th century, vaccines were developed to prevent common childhood diseases. With limited exceptions, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., require proof of vaccinations for a child to start kindergarten. As a result, most serious childhood diseases have been eradicated. Life expectancy in the 20th century increased by 30 years.

But in the past, as new vaccines were developed, tested, approved and required, there was opposition, usually based on personal liberty. Though the selfishness of this defense is obvious — getting a vaccination and wearing a mask protects others, not just oneself — objectors persist, as they did in the past. However, the courts have generally ruled that requiring vaccinations and mask wearing is consistent with the responsibilities of governmental entities to protect the public health.

Both the governor of Alaska and mayor of Anchorage have left vaccinations and wearing masks to individual discretion. Under their leadership, Alaska has become the state with the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita, and COVID-19 has largely become a disease of the unvaccinated, especially those aged 35 to 54.

The three large hospitals in Anchorage that treat the most serious cases in Alaska are overloaded with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. While treating them, as well as the normal load of people needing immediate care, medical staff have been overwhelmed and overworked.

Compounding their stress, health care providers have received hate messages from vaccine opponents and some patients deny that they have COVID-19 or demand treatment by popular but ineffective means. Thankfully, health care providers have also received many expressions of appreciation from the community.

Responding to the crisis of the hospitals, the Anchorage Assembly held hearings on a proposed ordinance that would follow the science and require people to wear masks in indoor public settings. The proposal inspired a vigorous protest by a group of opponents supported by Anchorage’s mayor. It became ludicrous and ugly. At the end of the week, the hearings were postponed after two members of mayor’s staff contracted coronavirus while not wearing masks.

However, a large majority of the public saw the logic of the ordinance and supported it. The Assembly passed a well-measured conditional ordinance requiring mask wearing; the mayor vetoed it; and by a 9 to 2 vote, the mayor’s veto was overridden. Following municipal law, Anchorage now is under a temporary mask mandate. This local achievement is encouraging.

I hope the people of our municipality, our state and our nation are recognizing the enormity of the threat to humanity posed by COVID-19. Cases are falling nationwide as the public is stepping up to stop the pandemic with two key scientifically proven measures — wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.

For everybody, wearing a mask is tough. Being together is an essential part of being human. People need each other, and masks inhibit normal human exchange. Comprehensive vaccination will get us back to normal most quickly, but in the meantime, wear masks!

Remember that COVID-19 is a worldwide disease and treat it as such. Viruses survive through transmission among unprotected hosts. In the process, they mutate and become more virulent and contagious, as we have seen in the new delta variant. Worldwide, COVID-19 has affected 238 million people; nationwide 45 million; and in Alaska 126,000. That’s close to one in six people in our state.

COVID-19 is far too dangerous to politicize. It is the duty of governmental leaders to define and implement the public good. Often this is difficult, but in a worldwide pandemic, the answer shouts at us: “Protect us from death.”

It is in our national interest to join with other countries to provide vaccines and win the global battle against the virus. And here in Anchorage, we must continue to do our part by wearing masks and getting vaccinations.

During the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, the Red Cross distributed gauze masks. In the words of a children’s jump rope song, the public was enjoined to: “Obey the laws/ And wear the gauze /Protect your jaws/ From septic paws!” Let’s learn from the past.

Janet McCabe and her husband David came to Alaska in 1964. She is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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