We live in strange times, don’t we? A science fiction-like pandemic “The Chinese” or slightly more politically correct “Kung Flu” is gripping America. We’re avoiding each other (as the old adage goes) “like the plague.” Businesses and schools are closed. “Shelter in place” orders have been issued. Grocery store shelves are bare. Many fear for the future.
But there’s a silver lining in the clouds. Many families have more time together learning how to depend on each other … to care for each other. Unique ways to help are being conceived like the small defense contractor offering Visa gift cards to family members of employees who need help or communities (like ours here in Swansboro) banding together to share resources, deliver food and medicine, or complete emergency home repairs for neighbors.
All of us are being humbled by an important lesson, we’re quickly learning that we have less control over our destinies than we once thought we did. And we’re learning from this unprecedented event that will ultimately make us stronger as individuals, families, communities and as a nation.
But is “Kung Flu,” also known as the COVID-19 pandemic, really unprecedented? While it may not be unprecedented as far as pandemics go (we really won’t know for sure until we can evaluate it and its effect on us from the perspective of 20-20 hindsight), our response to it is clearly unprecedented because, at least partly, of social media and the 24-hour news cycle that bombards us with doom and gloom, day-in and day-out.
Just 10 years ago – before we were blanketed (some might say smothered) by social media – there was the H1N1 virus pandemic. According to a March 10, 2020 Bloomberg column by Justin Fox, H1N1 “… infected as much as 24 percent of the world’s population. In the U.S., an estimated 60.8 million people contracted the new H1N1 virus from April 2009 through April 2010, 274,304 were hospitalized and 12,469 died.” And 10 years ago we didn’t react to H1N1 the way we’re reacting to COVID-19 because experts say that “COVID-19 has worse outcomes” … at least as we surmise at this point in the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
In responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, we hope as philosopher Francis Bacon said 300 years after the “Black Plague” pandemic ravaged Europe that, “The remedy isn’t worse than the disease.”
One hundred and two years ago, there was no social media and no remedy. But there was still plenty of doom and gloom. Just into her mid-teen years in 1918 my maternal grandmother, Margaret, lost both her parents in the same week to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Orphaned as a 15-year old, penniless, and social services not being then what they are today, she had few options. So she made her way to Cleveland, Ohio, from her home in Cincinnati and found work as a housekeeper.
Not unexpectedly … employment opportunities for women being limited as they were early in the 20th century … she married young, bearing two sons. Those two sons eventually became my Mom’s half-brothers when Margaret divorced her first husband and married my grandfather, a recent German immigrant.
The fact that Margaret survived the Spanish Flu (and its aftermath) … and therefore that I am here … is something of a miracle. According to the National Archives, “The influenza pandemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world’s population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.
“Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Young adults, usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children. The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 12 years.”
But Margaret didn’t just improbably survive, she thrived, not only living through the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, but also enduring the shame of divorce and single motherhood in the 1920s and bearing two daughters with her second husband (one of them my Mom). She carried-on through the Great Depression, marched her U.S.-born sons off to war to fight her new husband’s brothers (who remained in Germany to fight for the Fatherland during WWII), watched one of her sons die young from alcoholism and was left a widow when her husband died at 60 years of age. Through many challenges, she ultimately lived, healthy to the day she died, to the ripe old age of 88 years old surrounded by a dozen grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
Somehow like millions of other Americans Margaret survived pestilence, trials and tribulation. Her survival is hard to imagine today even though we inherently know the human spirit and will to live are almost insurmountable.
COVID-19 unprecedented? No. Different? Yes. With our insurmountable spirits we, too, will (“we” collectively … some sadly will not) survive this pandemic. And we will be all the better, like Margaret, for having endured. Together.
Newspaper columnist Barry Fetzer lives on Queens Creek.