Photo Credit: NIAID-RML / flickr
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (orange)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (green) cultured in the lab.

As of Tuesday, the coronavirus had infected 91,000 people and killed over 3,100 (all but 170 in mainland China).

This virus is rearing its ugly head at a time when I have been taking a nosedive into another infectious disease, which killed millions: tuberculosis.

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Tuberculosis is not common today thanks to effective antibiotic treatments, among other reasons, but it has not disappeared! In 2018, 10 million people were infected with tuberculosis around the world and 1.5 million of them died.

Before scientists understood tuberculosis, it was a terrifying mystery. Theories of why certain people were infected and others were not were a dime a dozen. German eugenicists of the early 20th century regarded tuberculosis as a sign of racial weakness – proof that an infected person was not worthy of life.

“German eugenicists,” writes Helen Bynum in Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis, “regarded the tubercle bacillus as ‘the friend of the race,’ such was its power to weed out the unfit members of society. They regarded sanatoria not so much as places of cure, but as somewhere to segregate the sick compassionately and to stop the dilution of the race by preventing them from reproducing.”

During the interwar period, eugenicists in Germany called for greater control over tuberculosis patients. With the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler’s election in 1933, the pursuit of a “healthy” and “pure” Aryan race became national policy. Sterilization was legalized. Marriage between Aryans and “others” was restricted or forbidden. People with mental and physical disabilities were murdered in the T4 Euthanasia Program.

Germans with tuberculosis were quarantined in sanatoria. The “Nazi doctor Kurt Heissmeyer,” Bynum writes, “recommended in 1943 the sorting of patients by ‘racial value’ as well as ‘organic condition’ when deciding if they were worth treating. At the Neuengamme concentration camp he used Jewish children and adults for his experiments on the immunity to tuberculosis, and not just because of their easy availability; in his view their racial inferiority made them particularly easy subjects to infect and in which to monitor the progress of the disease.”

People with tuberculosis were sought out by the Nazis in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. The SS used mobile X-ray machines to diagnose approximately 100,000 Polish and Soviet citizens with tuberculosis. They were all shot.

I stumbled on all this information recently as I was reading about tuberculosis and its world of coughing, collapsed lungs, sputum, and sanatoria. I was led here by my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth (Staadecker) Friedlander (“Nanny”). In 1947, she contracted tuberculosis and was quarantined in Seattle’s Firland Sanatoria. She was a mother of two girls, ages 12 and 10.

Both my mother and my aunt have strong memories of visiting their mother at Firland. Because she was 12 (some kind of magical age), my mother was usually allowed to enter my grandmother’s room and visit for a few minutes. My aunt, 10, could only wave through a glass window. My mother recalls other visits during which all she and her sister were allowed to do was stand outside the building and wave to their mother through a window.

Nanny was released from Firland after six months of treatment and declared cured. But she relapsed and had to be quarantined for another six months! I believe the new antibiotic streptomycin saved her life since it was introduced as a treatment for tuberculosis in the United States in 1946, and Nanny was most likely at Firland in 1947.

I hope and pray that the newest coronavirus does not stay with the human population as long as tuberculosis has and that those infected find a speedy and full recovery.

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Karen I. Treiger is the author of “My Soul is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story.”To learn more, visit www.karentreiger.com.