Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 68

Downtown Tucson

They all seem plausible. They all seem understandable. But they all seem straining toward different directions. A shared point, a common bond, is absent and without it, it’s hard to know where to go except farther down a single lane of reality, of life.

The junction is empty and open and not yet joined.

Five paths pull against the center. Day 68, November 14, 1918.

One. The people of Tucson, Arizona now live under a blanket rule of mask-wearing. Except the exceptions, listed as a quartet—teachers, actors, musicians, and preachers. They do share a center. It’s distance from the people watching and listening to them. Be it from a pulpit, a stage, or a desk at the front of a classroom, they are free of the rule.

Two. The people of Hancock County, Mississippi witness the first burial of the first death from influenza. She is Mrs. Grace Ervin. Beyond the tragedy of her lost life is the tragedy of her surviving children. There are, as a local newspaper described it, “several” of them. They are now motherless, finding common ground with the fatherless and the parentless across the nation.

Three. The people of Asheville, North Carolina. A week prior to today, the newspaper “The Citizen” printed a declaration that the epidemic had been conquered. Now, in a panic, the same newspaper states that 41 people have caught influenza in the past 24 hours. Bad is back.

Four. The people of the Wallace family in Tumalo, Oregon are home after a short trip to Washington. They had luggage and they had baggage. Influenza is the latter. All five members of the family are sick today. Influenza’s hideous toll on whole families makes their situation precarious. The vast extent to which Deschutes County is reeling from influenza raises the precarious to the predictable. They wait and pray.

Five. A person in a classrom in a Washington school. Mrs. Streator teaches Latin to teenaged students in Seattle. The school has been closed for weeks to help control influenza. Until today, that is. First day back in the classroom and she’s barking out orders for her students to take a quiz over several pages of Latin terms. The students stare at each other, speaking the universal silent language of “is-she-kidding?” The teacher now has a reputation.

Some are returning sick from elsewhere. Some are improving where they are. Some are getting worse for the first time and some for the second time. Some are renormalizing. Some are reverting. Some are included and some are not. Some are worried about losing an entire family and some are worried about surviving as a broken family.

If gravity has a center in the United States on Day 68, influenza is still it.

A thought for you on Day 68, May 19, 2020, sixty-eight days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—holding together. Influenza is a condition shared by millions of Americans on the 68th day. Regardless of money or station, influenza has become a collective state of existence. However, the condition produced by influenza is wildly uneven. The disparity of experience—including its bewildering change over time in location and degree—defies any attempt to build mutual ideas and outlooks. We have five different stories pointing toward five different trends and directions, yet tied to a single overriding factor of influenza. The reality may be that a vision of unity is inevitably illusive in our event. We may want to ask ourselves if we are pursuing a mirage instead of a vision. Perhaps there is a different future state in the next stages of Covid-19. The best horizon may be a broader stretch of the vast line ahead, the furthest visible line, and not the same point at the same time on the same endless line. The life of a river is not the flow of a channel. The water is various streams and currents doing various things simultaneously. We may need to widen, to open up, our understanding of unity. Coherence may play a key role and so, too, in an odd way, may co-incidence. Take in more of the horizon and not less. All five stories can count toward the distant line.

A gathering not far from Asheville, North Carolina

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