“We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone.” — Pete Townsend
It began innocently enough. A disease was spreading overseas and it was killing upwards of millions of people. Yet, everyone in America felt secure. These things don’t happen to us. After all, diseases don’t travel across oceans, so that was a problem for other countries to worry about.
Of course, we know that’s not how it turned out. Someone travelled overseas and brought the disease back home. It started with a few cases and quickly began to spread. Some people recovered and some didn’t. The government reacted with it’s best advice it could give. They suggested social distancing. They suggested masks. They suggested that people should wash their hands more vigorously.
Unfortunately, some people refused to follow these guidelines. “I’m from ‘Murica” they said. “Nobody tells me what to do.” Others didn’t say those things but they thought they were healthy. Weak people died from that stuff. Old people died from that stuff. I’m not weak. I’m not old. At least, that was the prevailing wisdom of the time.
Except, this virus attacked healthy people. Healthy people were vulnerable. Healthy people were the ones hit hardest. When all the dust had settled, 675,000 Americans had died. I’m sure many of you have caught onto the details of the story. This particularly tale involves the 1918 flu pandemic.
The parallels are unavoidable. That one started in Europe while the current one started in Asia. The current one hits the vulnerable harder, but otherwise the stories are eerily similar. When we learned about the 1918 flu in history we just chalked it up to people not knowing any better. Medicine was not nearly as advanced and the public was not nearly as educated about disease prevention.
We’re smarter now. We know more about hygiene. We know more about medicine. We have more advanced hospitals that can treat these things. All of these statements are true and yet it didn’t matter in the end. The currently pandemic has claimed nearly 610,000 lives in the U.S. alone. Families have been irreparably torn apart.
My great grandmother took it upon herself to care for her brother. He was a drunk that was down on his luck and health. He had caught the Spanish flu. Somehow he recovered. She didn’t. She began healthy, but succumbed in 1919 leaving my grandmother and her brothers and sisters without a mother. They would have to fight through the Great Depression with only one parent.
What’s remarkable is that after 100 years, this story is not all that foreign to us. Millions of Americans could tell a similar story about someone from their family back then and could tell a similar story today. The opening paragraphs could just as easily describe the current pandemic.
No one would dare deny the Spanish flu. It has become an integral part of our U.S. History curriculum. There are numerous events we don’t cover that we absolutely should. That is not one of them. Anyone who’s family has been in the country for over 100 years probably has their own story to tell. It is impossible to get through history without telling those stories.
Yet, here we are. We still have people denying the virus. We still have people that shunned the suggestions about wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and improving personal hygiene. We still have people that distrust the government enough to deny all kinds of advice and rules.
The sad thing is that those people were not the ones most effected. Somehow you knew that would happen. My great great uncle was a jackass. He somehow survived. There all kinds jackasses today that flout the rules and they end up fine.
So, we begin to take stock in what we’ve learned. First, we learn that there are parallels for almost everything in history. Sure, technology improves and knowledge comes with that, but history often repeats itself. Second, even though we discuss these things in history, there will always be those that don’t learn or don’t see the connection.
It seems impossible, but we are destined to pass the 675,000 mark. We are destined to do it because a group of Americans are too stubborn to admit they were wrong. You can hear them cry hoax all the way to their hospital beds and ventilator units. You can hear them cry hoax to their super spreader events. You can hear them cry hoax as they watch yet another loved one or family friend die.
You can also see a high school student 100 years from now learning about COVID. They will think to themselves that it was a shame how ignorant the people were back then. Why didn’t they learn from 1918? It might even be a history they are doomed to repeat themselves.