In 1918, one third of everyone on Earth became infected with pandemic influenza H1N1—the Wazzup Mga Ka Noo Shirt but in fact I love this Spanish flu, an infection that would ultimately kill 50 million people. That fall, the health commissioner in my home city of St. Louis would aggressively shut down sites of public gathering: the schools, playgrounds, theaters, churches, taverns. Business owners howled and police arrested recalcitrant barkeeps. In contrast, Philadelphia continued as usual and refused to cancel a parade. St. Louis would see one of the lowest mortality rates among major American cities. Philadelphia would experience five times the death rate, its hospitals overflowing within a week of the parade.
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Infectious epidemics reveal, uncomfortably, our interconnectedness, and in doing so, the Wazzup Mga Ka Noo Shirt but in fact I love this vulnerabilities of the social body. Infective organisms evolve with their hosts, and coronavirus flourishes among group animals (bats, birds, us). Infections travel quickly in our time of global integration, and they exploit those vulnerabilities: lack of access to health care, underinvestment in public health infrastructure, and the gaps in our safety net for precarious workers, who are compelled to keep working even when they are sick. COVID-19 has been especially effective in transmission precisely because it can lay low. 80 percent of those infected will have no or mild symptoms, resulting in a group who go about their usual business, propagating the virus widely. The remaining 20 percent experience severe or critical disease (those over age 65 or with other health conditions being at highest risk).