Learning From the Past and the Present

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Several years ago I read a fascinating book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It was one of those page turners that I was unable to set aside, so I found myself neglecting all of my other duties until I had reached the final page in the hours after midnight. After reading the story of the world’s battle with the unknown disease I had a difficult time thinking about anything else.

I suppose that aside from my fascination with the vivid first person descriptions of the horrific time was the fact that I had never before heard of this event. My grandfather who was a storyteller of the first order had spoken of small pox, the Great Depression, the Cleveland Panic and all sorts of historic events but not once had he even cursorily mentioned the pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. Sadly, by the time that I had finally learned of this historic emergency Grandpa had died so I was unable to question him about what he might have known.

Today we get minute by minute updates on Covid-19 with our twenty four hour newsrooms and breaking headlines on the internet. We get texts from local authorities with news of what is happening near us. We learn how our friends and members of our family are doing from social media and any number of communication platforms. In 1918, I suspect that the average person was mostly privy to what was happening nearby and only peripherally concerned with faraway events. It’s possible that my grandfather was untouched by the Spanish flu and so he simply went about his work and thought little of it.

On the other hand I have often suspected that my grandmother, Minnie Bell, was more personally impacted by the events of 1918 of something that I found as I was researching my family tree. She had been married to Orville Thompson prior to meeting my grandfather. Her first husband who was still rather young died in 1918, and her son seems to have somehow vanished in the same year. The next thing I know about my grandma is that she and my Aunt Opal were working in a boarding house a couple of years later where she met my grandfather. They had a kind of whirlwind courtship that lead to marriage and eventually the birth of my father.

I knew that my grandmother had been a widow but she never once spoke of her first husband, nor did she ever tell me that she had a son other than my father. Of course adults rarely spoke of their personal business to children back then so I knew very little about the most private feelings that my grandmother may have had, but I have since become intrigued by the possibility that her first husband may have been a victim of the pandemic. I wonder if what she witnessed was so horrific that she chose not to speak of it ever again. Since the official death records of Oval Thompson do not list the cause of death I will never know but I think that my conjecture may hold some truth.

The Spanish flu coincided with the end of World War I and the homecoming of soldiers who had served in battle. The first recorded outbreaks were in military bases. There was so little knowledge of the illness that doctors were uncertain how to treat it. There were no vaccines, no drugs, nothing of particular impact and the numbers of the sick began to rise exponentially especially in places like Philadelphia where the city leaders had decided not to cancel a celebratory parade that attracted thousands of people even though there were credible warnings that such an event would be dangerous. That city would become one of the hardest hit places in the country.

When word of the rapid rate of infection began to spread to middle America many cities and towns essentially locked down just as we are now doing. The incidence of illness and death in those places was considerably less than locales where the people continued as though nothing was happening. Thus the historical precedence that is guiding our activities today.

Back then researchers worked feverishly to understand the nature of the Spanish flu and to find ways of protecting people from its ravages. It would be many years later before they unlocked the mysteries of that virus. By then the world was fighting new battles that would ultimately lead to another war, but the knowledge gained would keep us relatively safe from another such occurrence for a hundred years.

The scientific and medical communities have been studying diseases that affect humans for decades. Since 1918, they have found vaccines for chicken pox, measles, polio and the common seasonal flu. My generation still came down with serious illnesses like the measles, chicken pox and mumps but our children and grandchildren have never known such diseases. I had friends who were struck down by polio but now it is a disease of the past. I suspect that within a very short time there will be a reliable vaccine for Covid-19 along with viable measures for better treating those who contact the disease in the future. 

Nonetheless those on the forefront of medical science tell us that we will face new challenges as viruses and bacteria mutate in their natural tendency to fight for survival. It would be good for us to learn from the Covid-19 experience just as our ancestors may have done with the Spanish flu. Each family, state, city, country and organization must include the possibility of a worldwide pandemic in their risk management plans so that the mistakes that we have made this time around will not be repeated in the future. I suspect that there will be many discussions as to how to successfully prepare for any health eventuality once we are clear of our current danger. We need to take such conversations seriously and be willing to respond to honest critiques. It is imperative that we prioritize such efforts rather than becoming so relaxed that we dismantle programs designed for readiness because they appear to be unneeded. 

It would be a grave mistake to simply bury this event in the pages of history. Instead it is an opportunity to honestly reassess our responses and our institutions. If we are very lucky we will never again witness such a thing, but we must nonetheless be cautious about becoming complacent. Just as we sometimes grow weary of fire drills we do them anyway lest the practice session becomes a reality one day. So too must we adapt to the new emergency requirements that Covid-19 has revealed. The first step will be listening intently to those whose life’s work is to know more about these tiny microbes that lurk among us. They will tell us how to proceed. 

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