Battle of the Bug
Synopsis: Here are three lessons for investors from our
history of facing down infectious diseases.
“Reveille boys! Time to seize the day the army way!”
There were sounds of sleeping men coming awake, gathering their kits and getting ready for barracks inspection. It seemed to all be in slow motion. Way too slow for the likes of a non-commissioned officer. These kids might be going to war any day if President Wilson had anything to say about it. And this wasn’t going to cut it.
“Private Gitchell!” Gitchell remained motionless in his army cot. He tried to respond to his Sergeant, but it came out an extended moan.
“On your feet Private.” Ah, Army life. No rest for the weary. Gitchell tried to rise and failed, collapsing in a heap.
“Oh boy…” the Sergeant took a look at the youngster, feverish, sweating and red faced.
“Sorry Sarge…” the kid croaked. But that was all he could manage.
“Let’s get your sorry carcass to the infirmary.”
Gitchell made it, with some help, through the darkness of pre-dawn morning on the prairie. His journey was soon repeated by others at Fort Riley, Kansas. A lot of others. By noon over one hundred soldiers had followed him, complaining of a sore throat, fever and headache. It was March 4th, 1918 and a pandemic had taken hold in America. The Spanish Flu was loose in the Heartland.
Of course, it didn’t stop there. It traveled across the Atlantic on troop transports, flared up on military bases and in prisons, and eventually killed over eight million Spaniards, giving it that macabre name. The flu would also kill as many as 675,000 Americans and more than twenty million people worldwide. The causality count would vastly dwarf that of The Great War.
It wasn’t the first time Americans faced down rampant disease. Indeed, the history of America is just as much a history of battling disease as it is battling enemies foreign or domestic. Indeed, one of the “advantages” European settlers had in conquering the continent was the lack of immunity against smallpox in native populations.
Through the eighteenth century, smallpox continually reappeared in places like New York City, where it was perhaps three times more deadly than the Spanish Flu. Later, it was yellow fever that ravaged Philadelphia and temporarily forced the government to disband. Cholera outbreaks dominated the 1800s, especially along the increasingly crowded Eastern Seaboard. While these deadly diseases came and went, others like tuberculosis and typhoid fever persisted into the twentieth century. Polio, a child killer and crippler, carried on until Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine in 1955. Humanity breathed a collective sigh of relief. But even then, the battle was far from over.
Perhaps the last thing you need right now is more information or commentary about infectious disease in general or the coronavirus in particular. But here are a few lessons based our history of battling bugs:
1. At a time of intense anxiety, being a bit optimistic about the future requires historical context. It may be a good time to review your genealogy and read through your family history. Why? As the author Ryan Holidays notes in his Daily Stoic email series: If you are reading this, you are a link “in an unbroken chain of ancestors who managed to make it to childbearing age. Which is to say, you come from a long line of survivors.” If human beings weren’t the least bit resilient, we never would have made it this far. Keep that in mind as the news continues to roll in.
2. Paradoxically, one of the reasons we may feel so unprepared for COVID-19 may be how well our ancestors did in eradicating many diseases. Yellow fever, scarlet fever, smallpox...all relegated to the dustbin of history. We’ve gotten used to not only winning but winning big. By the middle of the twentieth century American’s saw a huge jump in life expectancy partly due to the precipitous decline of infectious diseases. And we stopped getting annual practice in dealing with things like polio. That long string of successes makes a setback feel all the more daunting.
3. But setbacks often set up the next success. The battle against Cholera brought us the field of epidemiology, without which social distancing would mean little beyond awkward middle school dances. The discovery of penicillin between World Wars lowered the death rate from bacterial pneumonia from 18 percent to less than one percent. Thanks to such progress, as helpless as we feel today, we are vastly better prepared than our ancestors to fight disease.
Being an investor means suffering many of the slings and arrows, and the vagaries of life in general. But we’ve been here before. And we have risen to the occasion. No one should be too quick to bet against that happening again. Now, seize the day!
Patrick Huey is an investment advisor representative of Dynamic Wealth Advisors dba Victory Independent Planning, LLC. All investment advisory services are offered through Dynamic Wealth Advisors. Patrick Huey is the author of two books: "History Lessons for the Modern Investor" and "the Seven Pillars of (Financial) Wisdom"; this is considered an outside business activity for Patrick Huey and is separate and apart from his activities as an investment advisor representative with Dynamic Wealth Advisors.
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