All four of my grandparents lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic in Minnesota and Michigan, but I never heard a peep about any of this until many years after they had passed. It never came up. I never asked any question that would have lead there. What kid asks a question like “Grandma, have you ever lived through a pandemic?” I’m sure I thought pandemics were a thing that died out with the bubonic plague in the middle ages, if I was even that aware.
My grandparents would have been in their early twenties / late teens during the time of the Spanish Flu, so surely would have been very aware. I read that in 1918, 125,000 cases of the flu were reported in Minnesota, causing 7,260 deaths. With a population of 2,291,000 in Minnesota in 1918, this would have been bigger news than COVID-19 today. A simple Google search turns up notices of closures and mask recommendations that look very similar to what we see today. Even with no internet or 24-hour news cycle, 5% of the population in Minnesota reporting a case of the flu would mean everyone most likely knew someone who got sick — and probably someone who died.
I could speculate that many significant and more dramatic events stacked up between their 1918 Spanish Flu experience and fifty years later when I was sitting around on a quiet summer vacation evening visiting with them on the farm. The financial crash in the 20’s that lead to the Great Depression in the 30s, followed by WWII in the 40s, then the Korean War, the Cold War and the polio outbreak in the 50s. All these would have pushed a pandemic they survived decades earlier to the bottom of the pile of memories.
If I could go back in time and ask them questions about 1918, I’d want to know if they were afraid of getting sick? Did they change their behaviors in any way? Were public gathering places closed in their town too? Did it fill the conversation with their friends, or did they have to stop seeing friends for a while? What was that like for them? Did they assume it would all be over soon?
If my grandchildren ask me if I was afraid during COVID-19, what will I say?
Am I afraid of getting sick? I think I would tell them that I’m afraid enough. Enough that I’m willing to withdraw significantly from human contact to create a safety shield around our household. I’m willing to comply with any recommendations that medical experts put forth to help protect me from others and others, in turn, from me, in case I’m infected and asymptomatic. Maybe it’s not fear as much as it is a commitment to doing what I can to stay well, and stay out of hospital. I’m willing to reign in some of my personal freedoms to buy some additional safety insurance. Just like I try to do with exercise and diet. There are no guarantees, but I’m not taking many chances.
I would tell them, that I’m actually more afraid of other things. I’m more fearful of the overall effect this is having on our social and economic structures. I’m fearful that we’re in for a longer roller coaster ride than most expect. And I worry that our impatience for instant results may hamper our ability to make steady progress. And that when we do arrive on the other side of this with a long-awaited vaccine, who will get access to that new vaccine – will I? How much will have changed by then, that will define a new world quite different from today — or should I say, from what we knew a couple of months ago.
I don’t believe we will ever return to where we were before this virus. What will the new normal look like? Will I feel comfortable there? Can I thrive there? I heard Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning psychologist and economist, say in an interview recently that he expected the rest of his years to be confined to a life of “incarceration” because of the threat of this virus to his health.
I’m more afraid of these uncertainties, than I am of getting sick. Whether I contract the virus or not appears to be more within my control than defining what our world will look like as we move beyond the immediate threat of this pandemic.
Today is the beginning of Week 7 of social isolation at our house. Some restrictions are being loosened in our city (e.g., opening of restaurants, movies, malls, churches) as others are being implemented to mitigate that risk (e.g., mask requirements, % occupancy restrictions, etc.).
Everyone is hoping for the best. Everyone is still hoping we’re getting back to ‘normal’. There is an eagerness to get on with it. I haven’t made any restaurant reservations, or bought any movie tickets yet. Still waiting to see what happens.