I have recently been struck by the fact that the current COVID-19 health pandemic we are facing resembles what happened to the Indigenous people of North and South America after the arrival of Europeans on their hemisphere. Only that was much more extreme! It was even worse than the epic flu epidemic of 1918. We have a lot to learn from that encounter.
The adaptation of indigenous people to the European invaders was remarkable, but they were fighting against the odds. As Professor Richard White said, “The ecological invasion that European contact had continued unleashed and continued unabated. Diseases previously unknown to Indians, and to which they had no resistance, ravaged North America. Other diseases, such as syphilis and tuberculosis, which may or may not have been present earlier, spread to new areas.
The new diseases were horrendous to people who had no natural immunities. Just like the current COVID-19 epidemic is proving a challenge to western nations even with their incredible wealth, science, experience, and expertise. the indigenous people of the Americas were not blessed with such advantages. One would have thought the modern western countries were in a good position to respond to the current threat. But they have not responded as well as we might have expected.
Non-indigenous people of the west, after epidemics and pandemics in recent years that have included: Ebola, SARS, MERS, swine flu, avian flu and COVID-19 are beginning to appreciate this, even though none of these came anywhere near matching the extraordinary effect of diseases on indigenous people of the Americas after contact that might have killed nearly 95% of the native population. There might have been 90 million people killed after the European invasion! But that was not the whole ugly story. There is more.
The new diseases of North America and South America ravaged some peoples and decimated others. Yet that was not all. As Professor White pointed out,
“But these new diseases did more than kill. They polluted the channels of everyday life. Smallpox disfigured those who survived. Rubella harmed the fetuses of pregnant women and marked the children for life. In the wake of epidemics, blind or scarred survivors or mourning relatives could become suicides, taking their lives in what the English trader James Adair called “sullen madness.” Venereal diseases turned love and pleasure into pestilence: they also took their toll on the generation to follow. Syphilis caused miscarriages and infected infants at birth. Tuberculosis made what once had been secure if dark longhouses and earth lodges into pest houses where the tuberculosis bacilli thrived. It made what had been the tasks of daily life—for example the chewing fibres to make baskets—into sources of contamination.”
Imagine living on continents or in nations or tribes where 95% of the people died! Think how the survivors must have been shell-shocked by that. Our current experience pales into significance in comparison. Even after all that, their misery it was just beginning! Life for “those who made it” became even worse—it was hell.
I will continue this discussion soon.