A Look Back



In the opening chapter of an ancient book, a wise man reflected, “What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this Earth” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, The Message). Many thousands of years later, a rugged outdoorsman-turned-President of the United States suggested, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future” (Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919). Now, just over a hundred years since those words were penned, the United States of America is chest-deep in a pandemic and for most of us, it is the first time we have dealt with such an expansive, disruptive virus. It appears, however, many of us have forgotten to step back as we strain to move forward.

This is not our nation’s first experience in dealing with a pandemic of such broad proportions. The generation who would have remembered the first go-around are largely gone, and the truth is, the Spanish Flu of 1918 has been always been a footnote of history, a forgotten after-thought to the “bigger” story of World War 1. Dig a little deeper into the history and you will find far more troops were lost to the H1N1 pandemic than to the modern artillery first introduced in the war at the time. The movement of troops, in fact, is what helped propagate the deadly disease throughout the world.

In her gripping and expansive book on the forgotten pandemic, “Pale Rider” (written three years ago), Laura Spinney writes:

At the root of every pandemic is an encounter between a disease-causing microorganism and a human being. But that encounter, along with the events that lead up to it and the events that ensue from it, is shaped by numerous other events taking place at the same time…It is a social phenomenon as much as it is a biological one; it cannot be separated from it’s historical, geographical, and cultural context.

The last time our country/world faced a medical event of this magnitude, we were at the tail end of a costly and horrible war (what war is not?). The so called “Spanish Flu” was given it’s name due not to origin, rather because Spain, neutral in World War 1, was the only country whose free press reported on the mass amounts of death due to this new strain of the flu. Every other country downplayed or down-right ignored the biological enemy that was felling young men left and right, with no regard to whose side they were allied to in fear of exposing a weakness. The movement of virus-ridden troops became a conduit for the novel virus to expand its deadly tentacles to ports and town squares near and far.

Even as sickness took hold in all corners of the world, in America the news of a spreading disease most often arrived in small towns on the thin pages of the daily paper. In an article comparing pandemics found on Madison.com, we are reminded of the primitive modes of communication the generations before us were living with:

Back in 1918, early phone lines were still being laid, and in many places the telegraph was the only way to communicate. Public information came mainly from daily newspapers or was spread by word of mouth. It was difficult to share information about the new disease, its most common symptoms and the populations at greatest risk – or alert people about what was coming their way. There were no coordinated pandemic response plans in place.

          Communications in the late teens and early twenties were slow and limited by today’s standards. Yet, as today, readers could find conflicting information between the lines of various sources:

Newspapers were the main means of communicating with the public in 1918, and they played a critical role in shaping compliance-or the failure of it. They often took a lead in educating their readers about germ theory and passed on public health messages, but not without expressing opinions on them, and different newspapers expressed different opinions, sowing confusion. (Spinney)

          In the spring of 1918, the virus arrived in the United States in its first recorded case at the US Army base, Camp Funston, Kansas. From there, and within all the ports welcoming war-weary and flu-tinged soldiers, the novel virus spread rapidly across the country. Initially, it was thought to be a stronger case of the yearly flu. By the second wave in August, it was clear that this was not the average annual ailment. Tell-tale signs of the virulent strain (besides coughing, fever, delirium, depression) were mahogany rashes on the cheek which -on the worst cases- would eventually spread across the body, inky darkness of skin would start at the edges of fingers and toes. The inflicted person would literally watch death creep over their bodies, culminating in the person drowning in their own bodily fluids. Horrific is an understatement.

While this virus was no respecter of persons, it especially targeted men in their prime. Brothers, potential suitors, husbands, and fathers were a scarce commodity in this time of war and disease.  A “lost generation” of men postmarked the era, lost, if not to war, then the ravages of an invisible killer. Women, as they tend to do, stepped up to the plate and assumed duties long assumed to the men that were no longer living. Many of the records we have are due to their diligence and many a soul was nurtured back to life after nearly dying.

          The earth was not as populated at the time, but there were still pockets of society, particularly the cities (such as New York) and poverty-stricken countries (such as India), whose citizens were stacked up upon each other, creating an ideal breeding ground ripe for a prolific spread of disease. Not only was there the issue of germ spread, but also of information dissemination and the way in which governments and their societies -each in their own unique way- approached (or did not!) the gradual awareness of the severity of this virus. In much of the world, masks became mandated. “There was even a little ditty: ‘Obey the laws, And wear the gauze, Protect your jaws, From septic Paws’” (Dunne). Certainly, not everyone adhered to mask-wearing. One man in San Francisco (apparently an area full of those who were not prone to compliance) was reportedly shot after being asked (twice) by a marshal to put on his mask and refusing to do so.

As awareness and actions towards the containment of it grew, quarantines were put in place, churches and schools closed for a time, lights dimmed at the dance hall and a strong emphasis on personal hygiene all became commonplace. An article in the New York Times recalls:  “At the height of the epidemic, in the fall, Boy Scouts stopped spitters on the street and handed them printed cards that said: “You are in violation of the Sanitary Code.” (Dominus). There was also, among certain American groups, a deep-seated suspicion that the Germans were the cause of the virus. According to The Hartford Courant, the Germans were suspected of poisoning in various ways; “Bayer aspirin of containing Spanish flu… German subs tipped upon the East Coast and left traces of Spanish flu to infiltrate itself into the community” (Dunne).

The H1N1 pandemic of 1918 was devastating in scale and impact at a time when most of the world was already down and out. While worldwide records are incomplete and, in some cases, non-existent, it is estimated that 50 to 100 million people died of the influenza. Many countries were completely unprepared and undone by its ravages, places such as Africa and India. Many other countries were coming out of wartime, and their citizen’s health, sustenance and economic situations were already anemic from it.

Fast forward one hundred and one years later. Here we are, living in a COVID-19 world, one that we could not have imagined mere twelve months ago. Our world population is significantly more complex than that of 1918, as are the ways and means by which we move, communicate and assume certain norms that were once not even a notion, a dream, a science fiction novel.

In many (perhaps most) ways, we have a tremendous advantage. Unlike the previous pandemic when mechanical ventilation was not a possibility and antibiotics were an invention dangling distantly on the horizon of the 1940’s, we are sitting pretty with cutting-edge technology, years of research and documentation, (most) countries willing to collaborate and communication at every turn. Even though we are packed more tightly together in all the spaces, many areas of planet earth have adopted healthy hygienic practices.

We do, however, face our fair set of challenges, many of them springing out of the very advantages listed above. As noted in Compare the Flu Pandemic:

The pandemic’s scientific complexities are formidable challenges. They’re playing out in a global economy that has ground to a halt, with resultant increasing pressures to reopen communities, and a technologically advanced and interconnected society – all issues that our predecessors a century ago did not have to consider. (Webel and Freeman)

In today’s America, we have changed from the people at large who struggled through a similar situation over a hundred years ago. We are more individualistic in our lifestyle, less aware of our mortality. There are those who define patriotism by embracing our rights as free people, trusting ourselves and each other to do as we each see fit and others who consider it the American way to pull together as communities, trust the government/scientists to tackle the big tasks that come our way, encouraging others to assume the same. There are, of course, many people somewhere in the middle of those two ideological poles.

No matter the pole, or the place in which one finds oneself in between them, it is instinctive of human nature to hunker down and find safety in numbers with folks who feel the same way you do, read the same reports you review and derive their opinions from the same news desk that you do. And so, no matter if the fear is of government overreach or coming into contact with COVID, we feed our fear with a line of reasoning that makes us feel a little more righteous, a little more certain that we are right and they are wrong.

Is it possible we are both right in some ways and wrong in others? Is there any good to be had in taking twenty steps back and surveying the entire forest comprised of American (and world!) history as we fumble our way through the in-your-face branches of our present discomfort? Is it possible there is clarity in the clearing?

I believe there is. As I have researched the last pandemic of COVID proportion on American soil, I am amazed at the similarities of human response despite all the differences of disease, advantage, and circumstance. Presently, we may have all the upper hand in terms of technology and preparedness, but we are sorely lacking in perspective, unpretentiousness along with a particular brand of common sense and decency that once held hard-hit communities together. Disease may ravage the body, but pride will reduce the soul of a nation.

Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. History repeats and rerepeats itself. When wisdom knocks, nudging us to take a few steps back and consider the whole scene, we are reminded we each are but small strokes on a massive masterpiece. No stroke stands alone. Though small, our place matters. How we treat others creates coherency in our place in the picture. No matter our definition of patriotism, we are wise to reconcile our history with our present and in all things, do for and to each other, as we would want done to and for us, our children and our children’s children.


 ****

Dear pandemic-weary soul,

                    It is perfectly within your right to feel exhausted/sad/mad/disappointed hopeful/wary/wondering/insert-your-current-emotion. You are probably sick and tired of hearing the phrase “in these unprecedented times”. I am too, especially since the phrase is not entirely accurate. These times, while unique in their makeup of all the other particulars of this moment in history, are not without precedent. We have been here before.

                    Of course, we cannot be expected to remember because there are only a very few who could recall when the guy in San Francisco who twice refused to comply with officer’s request to put on a mask and was promptly shot. Perhaps you have heard of the Boy Scout of New York City pacing the streets, ready to hand offending “spitters” (as in “people who spit”) a notice that reads “You are in violation of the sanitary code”? Maybe not, seeing as though the last time any of these things happened, it was a mere one hundred and one years ago.

                    In America, in the fall of 1918, when young men were arriving back to the safe shores and small towns of their beloved homeland after a nasty war, they unknowingly brought home the enemy with them. Far more than the fancy modern weapons they employed and engaged with, an invisible enemy crept in among their ranks and felled more soldiers than all the bullets and blasts did. “The Spanish Flu” barely registered during a moment in history where no leader of a country involved in the war wanted to admit to any possible weakness. Spain, a neutral country in the war theater, was the only country with a free press who dared to report on the rising number of horrific deaths due to an influenza whose symptoms well-exceeded that of the typical yearly flu.     

                    Like COVID, The Spanish Flu was spread by droplets of mucus, easily spread from person to person, with people showing mild to severe symptoms within days of exposure. The medical event of 1918 at first presented as a typical flu in the early part of the year, but by August, the second wave was huge and crushing, sparing very few in its wake. While the elderly and pregnant women were especially suspectable, it was the young men in their prime who seemed to a primary target of this biological monster. Not only did war casualties produce a scarcity of brothers, sons, husbands and fathers, but the dastardly disease of the same era claimed even more, leaving a gaping hole we now call “the lost generation”.

                    You may know of people or may yourself be a person who is wary of this whole pandemic business and feel there is an agenda behind all these regulations. This is understandable. Those living in the same place you do had been living under the very real threat of Germany’s shadow and with the repercussions of a fast-spreading and oft-deadly illness found it difficult to resist pointing the finger in their direction. Bayer, a German company, produced the widely used Aspirin and many felt that they were mixing in flu-causing germs into their pills. If not that, surely their submarines were slithering along the coast, leaking germs intended to infect the US population. There were a few noted cases of German soldiers purposefully giving Influenza germs to their enemies, but not in the suspected large-scale way via Aspirin or submarines. Later, the reality was recognized that all soldiers from all parts and sides of the war had gone back to their homes and unknowing triggered rippling effects of a disease whose symptoms, at their very worst, caused their victims to drown in their own bodily fluids.

                    Are you saddened or concerned at the closing of schools, businesses, churches and events that have been a staple for most all of our lifetimes? Of course, you are. Are your teenagers sick of being stuck at home, with little fun to look forward to?  Lutiant, a freshly graduated from high school nineteen year old, served as nurse serving soldiers battling the influenza, witnessing death and misery during her many twelve hour workdays instead of living the carefree life of a young adult. In a letter to her friend Louise, she lamented “All the schools, churches, theaters, dancing halls, etc. are closed here also.” There was great concern for the economic impact of the flu (and lack of manpower!), but somehow the immediate future defied present predictions, and the American population ushered in the “roaring twenties”, a time of unprecedented invention and frivolity (that lasted a short time before being introduced to the Great Depression).

                    In a book composed by the wisest man who ever lived (King Solomon), there are two sentences tucked into the first chapter: “What was will be again, what happened will happen again”. We are, indeed, living in precedented times. Yes, there are plenty of differences to what moms and dads, sons and daughters, friends and lovers faced in 1918 and there are plenty of advantages to the times in which we live, especially where medical advancement and technology, hygiene and communication are concerned. Yet the human response, the sheer variance of it, remains remarkably similar.

                    You probably know this, yet Irvin, D. Yalom spells it out so clearly for us in describing the four basic fears lurking in human hearts:the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.” If this pandemic, and the one before it, does not tap into a majority of those fears, I don’t know what does. You may fear death a little more than your next-door neighbor whose fear of losing her freedom exceeds yours. Perhaps you feel varying levels of both. The backstories of the fear(s) we feel we are layered and varied, and what we fear, we hold tightly, verging on anger at those who refuse to take it as seriously as we do. This, too, is an experience humanity has felt as long as we have been a race. The question is, what do we do with it?

                    Are you exhausted of being influenced or shamed or shut out and simply feeling hopeless, helpless, and just…alone? This is not the first time, and sadly, it will not be the last in which we collectively find ourselves under attack of fear and its many sneaky sidekicks. And yet, challenging circumstances often bring to light those ordinary souls who devote themselves to extraordinary unselfishness. Consider our current heroes: doctors and nurses. In an excerpt from Laura Spinney’s fascinating account of the 1918 Pandemic, Pale Rider, she notes:

          Take health workers for example. These people are in the front line of any epidemic, and governments often worry that they will desert their posts as soon as they see that their own lives are in danger…The Spanish flu showed the opposite: most doctors stayed at work until they were no longer physically able to, or until they posed a risk to their patients”. (Spinney, 137-138). Not much has changed, for today we see a tsunami of courage from men and women who scrub up for countless and often heartbreaking shifts at the hospital, offering a hand to hold when a loved one's is not present. Spinney further notes, “When there were no doctors, missionaries, nuns and other religious figures took up the slack, and when they weren’t available, ordinary people stepped in-even if, normally, they were divided by deep social gulfs”. (Spinney, 138).

                    Here is what is true a thousand, a hundred and ten years ago and will still be true ten, a hundred and a thousand years from now: a rule that is golden. It is mantra, a directive, a command derived out of many religions and a wise way to go about your moment by moment no matter who you are or you how you feel about a circumstance you find yourself in the middle of. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” No matter the fear(s) you harbor, the wary or weariness you feel, the hope or despair you cling to or bat away, there is never a bad time to do the next right thing, considering your neighbor, your family, your friends as valued, deserving of the same kindness and consideration as you would hope for yourself. We have done this before and we will do it again; we will pull through.

Chin up,

A Fellow Human



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