The plague year 2020 was yet another brutal rejoinder to the belief that brute forces can be pushed to the margins of, and eventually out of, humanity’s experience. When today’s pandemic recedes, what should linger is a quickened appreciation of the fragility of life and social arrangements. And an awareness that things much worse than covid-19 have happened before, and will continue to happen. The human story is not entirely about human choices.

The 1918-1919 “Spanish flu,” which began in Kansas, killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, lowered U.S. life expectancy by 12 years, and did not spare, as covid-19 largely does, the young. The Black Death — the bubonic plague — of 1346-1353 was much worse, killing 10 percent of the world’s population, and over one-third of Europe’s, including 40,000 of London’s 70,000 residents.

In the 1980s, AIDS was so shocking because it refuted the complacent belief that infectious-disease epidemics had been banished. In 2019, however, 1.7 million people were newly infected with the AIDS virus and 690,000 people who were already infected died. But of the 38 million living with the virus, 25.4 million were controlling it with antiviral drugs.