Coping with Coronavirus
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Coping with Coronavirus

COVID-19 may be all the hype, but take a deep breath, keep hope in science (and remember to wash your hands).

I heard that the Saint Patrick’s Day parades in Dublin and Boston have been cancelled due to fear of spreading the coronavirus 2019, COVID-19. So far NYC, even with increasing surveillance, is still planning to hold their parade. No doubt that fear as well as warranted caution are spreading just as fast as the novel coronavirus. My daughter’s college and many in our area have decided to go virtual after this upcoming spring break week.

I am ashamed to admit it but self-quarantine sometimes sounds really appealing to me, especially when dealing with life’s busyness. Imagine how much I could catch up with—as long as I have my creature comforts (like my laptop) around me! Then again, cancelled events and being knocked out of planned fun activities does not sound appealing at all. Think of the school plays and events that people prepare months for.

But during any possible epidemic or pandemic, it is best to be prepared. We all should try to not be Typhoid Mary’s, unknowingly spreading germs around town. Self-quarantine to prevent the spread of the recent outbreak of coronavirus 2019 has been coupled with government-forced quarantines. Like the aggressive fight against the 2003 SARS Coronavirus pandemic, scientists are working extremely hard to fight this new threat of 2019-nCoV.

The zoonotic transmission of the SARS disease from animals to humans took place in a crowded market area in Asia. By pinpointing and eliminating the source of transmission, it was contained. The hope for this new coronavirus outbreak is that we see similar results. 

We do live in a country where it is easy to simply wash our hands, but this daily routine was not always as easy as it is today. Historically, many epidemics and pandemics were worsened by the lack of clean drinking and washing water, and especially the lack of knowledge about germs and how they spread. Even in this modern day the World Health Organization estimates that 30% of the world’s population does not have access to well-managed clean water sources.

Epidemics and the Irish

As we approach St Patrick’s Day, I am reminded that the Irish people, including immigrants to America in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, endured many epidemics—including six consecutive cholera pandemics between 1816 and 1923. On top of a decades-long potato famine, many chose to brave what became known as “coffin ships” where contracting “the fever” including typhus was highly probable. Fear to stay must have been worse than fear to go. A 1960’s Life Magazine article detailed that in the famine years from 1845 to 1855 more than a million Irish bought $20 tickets for the 6 week voyage to Boston. In one year alone more than 30,000 of the 100,000 who attempted the voyage died enroute. Many died while their ships were quarantined because of the overwhelmed medical facilities.

Once in America, fear continued. In the wooded hills a few miles from our Philly-area corporate center, there is a grim history of Irish railroad workers at “Duffy’s Cut” who died both from   cholera and attacks working on the horse-drawn railroads.

Fortunate for all of us, breakthroughs in understanding came soon after, thanks to years of research by Pasteur, PaciniKoch and others.  

Oh, how far we have come in access to good medications and hygiene!

Today, the cholera threat has been eliminated from the United States by improved water and sewage treatment systems and attention to health. In 2016, the first cholera vaccination was approved for international travelers to countries where the disease still lingers due to poor sanitation.

Maybe it is my Irish roots that help me not fear stepping out into the dangers of the world. As first generation Irish-Americans, my grandfather, a railroad engineer in WWI and the Lehigh Valley thru Pennsylvania and New York, and my grandmother, a nurse, worked nights to support six sons.

Those waving flags at the upcoming Saint Patrick’s Day Parades may not know that they are here because of the fight against the cholera pandemics and typhoid fever. I will be happy to wave my flag remembering the trials of my ancestors and their hard work.

It is unknown where this new COVID-19 outbreak will rank with modern day and historical pandemics, but what is clear is instead of a pandemic of fear, our energies should relay us into action. Scientific research is the basis of improved life for the future generations who will call us their ancestors.