Happy New Year everyone!  Surely 2021 will be a better one than 2020?

Today marks my journey into my 15th year of blogging.  It's my tradition to recap the previous year.  What a year it has been! Full of tumultuous events and the biggest public health crisis the world has not seen for a hundred years.

Luckily for us, the past century has also brought us huge advances in science and medicine.  The pace is just staggering especially with antibiotics and many new vaccines.

Death in childhood is no longer expected in advanced countries. There are many vaccines available to greatly reduce childhood mortality.  In 1900, 30 percent of all deaths in the United States occurred in children less than 5 years of age compared to just 1.4 percent in 1999. (Infants and young children still constitute 40% of deaths in the developing world.)

Smallpox was an ancient and terrifying disease, killing 3 out of 10 with survivors bearing sometimes severe scarring for the rest of their lives. Worldwide vaccination programs finally eliminated it in 1977.  It's the only infectious viral disease which is literally history but we are closing in on polio. One little bit of overlooked good news earlier this year was the elimination of wild polio in all of Africa after a long program of vaccination and surveillance. The disease still remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

In Canada, we currently have two approved mRNA vaccines against Covid with more vaccines along the way. Scientists have been working on mRNA vaccines and therapies for years looking for better ways to combat flu, Zika and other diseases such as cancer.  This new type of vaccine is easier and faster to make than traditional ones which typically take years to develop. What accelerated the development, testing and review processes for Covid mRNA vaccines was the huge monetary investments from governments and the public sector. International regulators also worked early to develop the standards vaccine companies had to meet for safety, efficacy etc.

The vaccines are the lights at the end of a dark tunnel.  How long that tunnel will be will depend on whether we can overcome vaccine hesitancy and whether poor countries will get access to them.  The Canadian government erred on the side of caution and moved very quickly to secure orders for millions of vaccine doses, far more than the population of Canada needs. Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has said Canada will donate what is not needed for Canadians to developing countries. 

Our situation is now complicated with the newly discovered virus variant and its faster transmission rate. It is more contagious but fortunately so far, not more lethal. Viruses mutate all the time. Most mutations are harmless but the longer the virus remains in human circulation, the higher the chance bad variants will emerge which will not be to our benefit.

So until we get vaccines to as many people as possible and slow down surging transmission rates, we still have to abide with the public health measures - quarantines, curfews, targeted shutdowns, crowd bans, physical distancing and masks. 

We are at war with a tiny virus and are seeing firsthand the all out efforts needed to defeat it. It is a hard pill to swallow for current generations like ours who have never gone through the destruction, devastation and disruption of a World War. 

There is nothing new about any of these public health measures.  It's rather eerie to see the past repeat itself again and again. 

The 1918 flu pandemic began in the spring. By October of 1918, some success in limiting transmission was noted. But relaxations for Armistice day and Thanksgiving celebrations brought a terrible resurgence - the second wave was the worst killing wave of the 3 recorded. 

Masks and other public health measures were introduced during the 1918 flu pandemic just as they are now. Shown below are headlines from 1918 Chicago newspapers.  Masks were also mandated in many cities. Back then there was resistance such as the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco.  

Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper's article :  "Mandatory masks, shuttered theatres and confusing rules : 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and its similarities with today."  reported how Canadian deaths started to mount up in the fall of 1918.  Soaring infection rates led to overwhelmed hospitals and funeral parlors. There were severe labor shortages everywhere. Unsorted mail piled up in some post offices. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, "The village store is left wide open, and those who are physically able serve themselves as no clerks are now available." Unlike today, that flu pandemic affected young adults the most.

And so it is with this Covid pandemic with surges in the disease starting in the fall overwhelming many hospitals due to a combination of Covid fatigue, colder weather and continued gatherings and travel.

Out of control infections are devastating. Even if everything remained open, many people would be afraid to move freely which in turn hurts those businesses and economies will be disrupted.  Vital industries are hampered with many sick or quarantined workers. The postal service is one example. Delivery backlogs affect many businesses. Some countries like Canada have had to spend huge sums of money to help the jobless and businesses but those resources are not inexhaustible. So it pays for all of us to do our part. 

Many Asian countries acted decisively and thus protected their economies. Taiwan moved very early (late 2019) to contain Covid with border restrictions, contact tracing, testing and near universal mask usage as soon as they got wind of the new disease. Hence Taiwan had no need for sweeping school, shop or office closures and its economy has even thrived. A nation of 24 million, there were just 770 cases and only 7 deaths. The country recently broke a streak of 253 days without a single case when a pilot brought back the disease from the US. As a comparison : Canada has a population of 38 million; we have had over 500,000 cases to date and more than 15,000 dead.

Some historians and bioarcheologists believe that the Plague of the Justinian (541- 549 AD) which marked the beginning of the First Plague Pandemic, probably finished off the declining Roman Empire.  Then, as with the Black Death (1347-1351)- the start of the Second Plague Pandemic - most workers worked the land. So when they died in droves, there were grain shortages which lead to a halt in commercial and trade activities.

The beginnings of the disease control measures we see today - emerged during the Plague pandemics. 

The word quarantine comes from the Venetian quarantena which means 40 days. During the time of the Black Death, all ships had to be isolated for that period of time before passengers and crew could disembark.  In our day, we have border restrictions and many countries quarantine visitors. We similarly lock down or quarantine areas for a few weeks. These "circuit breakers" or "fire-breaks" as they are sometimes called, have the same aim as back then - to stop the spread of the disease.

The Third Plague Pandemic began in 1855 and lasted for several decades. It was during this time in the 1910-1911 Manchurian Plague wave, that the first multilayer gauze filter masks were used as protection against the pneumonic form of the plague which is airborne. This innovation was the work of Dr Wu Lien-Teh, one of many international doctors helping there at the time. He was the first and only Malayan (Malaysian) ever nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Masked nurses during the Manchurian plague
The Great Plague of London (1665-1666) was the last major epidemic wave of the Second Plague Pandemic. During that time, two remarkable individuals - one, a man of science and one, a man of God - saved countless lives. 
Great Plague of London
Picture Source

This plague episode killed about a quarter of London's population in just 18 months. 

Fleeing is an extreme form of physical distancing. That was what King Charles II, his courtiers and the wealthy did then - they skipped town. But the less fortunate had no means to do so. They stayed and died in the tens of thousands.  Some historians call this the Poor Plague.  

[Today, those who have better paying jobs which allow them to work at home, are able to distance themselves from possible infection. Similarly the low wage earners - often minorities, migrant workers and new immigrants - have higher infection rates as their occupations do not allow them to work at home. Some of their jobs also require them to be in contact with a lot of people hence increasing the risk of infection. And many live in more crowded accommodations which do not allow for proper physical distancing.]
According to the National Archives, during the London plague :"Watchmen locked and kept guard over infected houses. Parish officials provided food. Searchers looked for dead bodies and took them at night to plague pits for burial. All trade with London and other towns was stopped. The Council of Scotland declared that the border with England would be closed. There were to be no fairs or trade with other countries. This meant many people lost their jobs – from servants to shoemakers to those who worked on the River Thames."

Nathaniel Hodges (1629-1688) was one of the few London physicians who stayed to help. His book, Loimologia, is the best medical record of the Great Plague of London.  He tested and proved worthless some plague remedies.  Fake cures abounded such as rubbing a cut-up pigeon on an infected body, drinking vinegar, arsenic, mercury or even 10-year-old treacle (molasses)!  His observations on how the plague spread led him to recommend many important measures mentioned above. 

Section VIII : Of Preservation from a Pestilence of his book is astonishing to read. He proposed the same measures needed today - separation of the sick from the healthy, physical distancing and banning large gatherings.He railed against misinformation, also a scourge in our time!! 

There was compassionate care. He recommended magistrates send two people in every parish to check on the welfare of all families every day. Where he went very wrong was to condemn an estimated 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats to death as he thought they were the disease carriers.  Ironic as cats would have kept the rat population down. 

Rural areas thought they were safe from the raging plague being far from crowded London. But despite Nathaniel Hodges' recommendations to reduce the spread, the pestilence did reach one isolated place.  Rural areas, then and now, are particularly vulnerable because they have less access to help and resources.

The tiny village of Eyam in northern eastern England, now known as the plague village,  has a remarkable story of sacrifice, suffering and survival. 

Plague Window, St Lawrence Church, Eyam
Picture Credit : RustyRuth1959

In 1665, a flea infested cloth from London arrived at the local tailor's house. It was damp, so it was hung up to dry.  The people in the tailor's household were the first to die. As more people began to succumb, the villagers turned to their new rector, Reverend William Mompesson and the ex-rector, Thomas Stanley for guidance.  

William Mompesson's solution was to ask the villagers to quarantine themselves to prevent the disease from spreading further afield. Mompesson assured the initially reluctant villagers he and his wife would stay with them and help in any way they could. Mompesson survived but lost his wife to the disease  contracted while tending to the sick. 

The boundary stones which surrounded Eyam still exist today. Merchants, a local lord and other people left food and supplies at the boundary stones. The Eyam villagers in turn would leave coins in the vinegar-filled holes as payment. 

Eyam Boundary Stone
Picture Credit : The Roaming Picture Taker

The toll on some families was tragic. One woman, Elizabeth Hancock, cared for but lost her six children and husband all in 8 days and had to bury them herself.  It is said people from the next village stood on a hill and watched her, too frightened to help. 

After 14 months, the quarantine was lifted. An estimated 260 people died from a village population of 350-800.  The villagers' courage and perseverance undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands more.  There were many Eyam survivors who either recovered or never fell ill despite being exposed so intimately to the disease. Their genetic makeup has intrigued modern day scientists, one of whom did extensive research to discover the protective genetic marker still present in their descendants today (see historical video below). 

In our time, asymptomatic people catch Covid 19, are never ill but then unknowingly infect others if they go about without taking precautions. 

This will not be the last pandemic - indeed, we have had some close calls in the last few decades. HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, Covid - as well as some nasty outbreaks like Zika and Ebola - originate in animals. MERS, another coronavirus, emerged in 2012 in the Middle East. It can be transmitted between humans, camels and bats. South Korea, another example of stellar efforts at controlling Covid in 2020 was prepared this time. The Koreans learned their lesson the hard way after suffering the largest outbreak of MERS outside the Middle East in 2015 when a businessman brought the disease back.

Scientists know population density and human encroachment into wildlife areas increases the chances a virus in animals will jump to humans. Congo doctors are concerned about emerging zoonotic diseases because patients who live in the rainforests there are turning up sick with Ebola-like symptoms but test negative for Ebola.  People hunt wild animals for food because they have to eat to live. 

Deforestation and fires, destruction of animal habitats and human poverty result in increased interactions with wild animals and thus increase the likelihood of the emergence of a devastating virus.  

Climate change also adds to those risks because humans and animals are forced to move to more hospitable locations in order to survive. Also worrying :"Long-dormant bacteria and viruses, trapped in ice and permafrost for centuries, are reviving as Earth's climate warms."

We all live on the same planet and there isn't another one for us to flee to. What happens in another part of the world could affect all of us. We therefore need to support vulnerable communities, countries as well as international organizations to help those who don't have the means to fight the current pandemic and prevent the next epidemic or pandemic.

Science is very much in the news today which is a good thing. People are seeing science and modern medicine in action. May our public school education systems improve and help people better understand science. Learning about history should also not be neglected as it gives perspective to the present, if nothing else.

One thing I know for sure, crafting sure helps when we are isolated and stuck at home.  The soothing practice of making jewelry, knitting, crocheting, painting etc distracts and calms the mind. Not to mention keep us busy.  I hope all of you are planning to do the same in the coming year. 

2020 has been a very busy year for me despite me cutting back my blogging schedule from 7 to 5 posts a week.  Making masks - mostly for my local hospital was an important distraction. Two Etsy shops (beadinggem and CraftaGems) and their attendant social media have also limited my time.  

However, the good news is I did find time to make real progress on my jewelry photography class.  I am currently working on scripts and recording. So stay tuned for the launch!

Finally this blog would not exist for the wonderful designers who inspired us all and to everyone single one of you who continue to read and support this blog and help keep it going and free for all.  I am also grateful to those who continue to send me tips, leave me encouraging blog comments and email messages. 

Many thanks from the bottom of my heart.  

May 2021 be a better year for us all! Keep creating!


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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM