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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Smallpox, Coronavirus, and Living in Isolation

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/15/2024
Occurred: 4/4/2020
Page Views: 711
Topics: #Coronavirus #Maui
A number of people, throughout history, have found a way to avoid sickness.

When I woke it wasn't raining, but looked like it would, soon. I went to the bathroom (outside) while I could. Sure enough, the clouds started rolling down from Haleakala and, while there have a been a few breaks, for the most part today is a downpour and Keith and I are stuck inside.

At least the air isn't too cold; Keith stripped and took his soap outside for a shower while it was showering. (I showered yesterday and don't like standing in cold rain, so I took a pass.)

Like people all around the world, my husband, Keith, and I are sequestered in our little shed on my daughter's property in Maui. We occasionally see the kids when they come, but otherwise have had very limited contact with anyone else. The stores are all practicing "social distancing" so, we either have the virus, or had it months ago (as I suspect). It's highly unlikely we've either infected or picked up an infection from anyone else since we've been here.

Even though Jenny and the toddlers have a rental in the town of Pa'ia, they are the only tenants and the landlord doesn't live onsite. And they don't encounter anyone else on their way to the property. Plus, Maui has been hit very lightly (so far), and the infections are on West Maui (we live on East Maui).

So, I feel like we're pretty safe.

Diseases and plagues have haunted humans since we moved into cities. All bacteria and viruses mutate naturally, as a matter of course (not to mention intentional gene manipulation, such as that by Monsanto). But a mutated virus that kills its isolated host, dies with the host. The more people the host can (unintentionally) infect, the longer the mutated virus may last; but once the local population has all been infected and either recovered, or dead—the virus is gone.

The problem arises when the "local population" is, in fact, the world. Add to that a mutation (again, natural or designed) that allows people to spread the virus for up to two weeks before exhibiting any symptoms, and you have a possible doomsday scenario.

This was, in fact, the plot to one of my favorite books, Earth Abides, in which a mutated airborne virus kills almost every human on Earth, while the protagonist is deep in a forest cabin by himself. When he drives back to "civilization", he is shocked to discover that there's no one left alive: Just abandoned stores, mass graves in front of hospitals, and the occasional corpse-occupied wrecked car.

Of course, eventually he does meet a handful of survivors, and they create a community.

Is a fatal, civilization-ending disease the inevitable result of city life and nearly instantaneous global transportation?

One could easily make the point that it is. However, as long as there are holdouts to city life, our species may yet survive to repopulate a saner, more rural, world.

It's well-known that smallpox, carried by European invaders, killed literally 90% of the Native Americans who lived in the Americas. It's often repeated that smallpox killed so many Natives because they had no immunity to the foreign disease; but that's only part of the story. What actually spread smallpox among the Native population was the infected blankets and other items given to Native chiefs during parleys. This started in 1763 with British General Ecuyer, who gave Lenape warriors several items taken from smallpox patients.

It is highly unlikely that smallpox would have killed so many, had it not been spread intentionally and with malice aforethought. That's because, while the various Native peoples practiced extensive trade, travel times and a much less dense population would have killed (most of) those infected before they could infect another population group.

Cities are not unique to Europeans, of course. Native Americans, such as the Mound Builders and the Aztecs, constructed cities as complex and dense as anything the Europeans had. And as, expected, these peoples had the occasional plague. But it didn't usually spread beyond the city, again because travel times exceeded typical incubation periods.

My husband, Keith, is Navajo and he tells me his people were mostly spared smallpox (which is why this formerly minor tribe is now one of the largest) because they practiced a lifestyle in which social isolation was a given. That is, there were no Navajo "cities", because the Navajo prefered to live in small family units rather than villages. They even warned each other to avoid the Pueblo people, because they lived in cities (cliff dwellings, mostly) and were always sick; and people who visited them often came back sick. So, by astute observation, the Navajo came to the conclusion that living close together is unhealthy, and they consequently simply didn't do it.

Even now, on the Navajo reservation, Native families tend to live scattered here and there, with a lot of distance between neighbors.

And that's what we're trying to simulate with social isolation. Even if you live in a crowded city, by minimizing contact with other humans—who probably aren't but could very well be infected—you lower your risk of exposure to coronavirus as well as any number of other diseases.

So our living now in remote Maui in a 200-square-foot shed is not that far removed, culturally, from Keith's experience.

In my case, I spent three formative childhood years living in a house in remote Vermont, without electricity or phone, and where the nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away. So this isn't that far from my experience, either.

Every day I am grateful for the fact that Keith and I are where we wanted to be, doing what we wanted to do, and had planned to do for at least six months before we found ourselves ostensibly trapped here. So many others aren't so fortunate, and I hope they can each find some preiously overlooked beauty in the surroundings they must now abide.

Remember, beauty isn't the only thing in the eye of the beholder. So are boredom, frustration, anxiety, and outrage. Change your point of view, and those negative emotions can become opportunities.

It's raining again. In fact, it just rained so hard that for over an hour we lost satellite access. (Raindrops are the same size as the wavelengths the satellites use, so hard enough rain can block the signal.) I suppose I could sit and stare out the window and fret.

Instead, I took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with this blog.

Which I will upload as soon as the rain lets up!