Articles

Pandemics We Have Known

Now the entire country is in a “pandemic.” The word has a combined meaning. One is sociological, “panic,” “hysteria,” chaos.” The second is biological, “fever,” “virus,” “spread.” Combined, they represent what might be called a national “lockdown,” meaning everything geared toward a single purpose, no deviation.

Our nation has come together before

The last time the country experienced a lockdown was in World War II, when all 120 million Americans lived to win the war. Food was rationed, over 16 million were in uniforms, no commercial production allowed, and “V for victory” a daily slogan. “Don’t you know there’s a war on” was the common response to even the slightest hesitation. An example of what “lockdown” meant then: in 1941, the country produced over 3 million passenger automobiles. From 1942 until 1946, the total was 29.

An example of what “lockdown” meant then: in 1941, the country produced over 3 million passenger automobiles. From 1942 until 1946, the total was 29.

Not that citizens even slightly appreciate the larger perspective. This, too, is commonplace. On December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier-based planes attacked Hawaii; the following day, enlistment offices across America were inundated with millions of boys lining up for blocks waiting to enlist against the “day of infamy.” They were inspired by the attack, but few appreciated the diplomacy that led to the event, which could be traced as far back as the mid-nineteenth century.

Today, within the span of days, the whole country has reversed “gears” against an unseen enemy, spawned somewhere in China and which has, within the same time period, taken some 100 American lives. Is the response appropriate? Could the whole thing have been avoided?

Would such questions have been entertained on December 8, 1941? Without opinion polls, a good guess is that anyone harboring such “dark” thoughts in those circumstances would have been labeled “treasonous.” Today, the issue is “moot,” but a universal answer (minus TV’s “experts”) would undoubtedly be “how should I know?”

“Keep calm and carry on”

Yet, the condition escalates with no end in sight. Are we all “blind mice”? Is there an alternative?

The answer to each question has to be probably “No,” while the most appropriate and the first step toward such a circumstance reminds one of how Britain handled the first wave of German bombers that began pounding British cities. With as many as 800 to 1000 Luftwaffe warplanes over London day and night through 1940 and 1941, the government issued a poster telling the people to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Churchill used this message throughout the war.

With as many as 800 to 1000 Luftwaffe warplanes over London day and night through 1940 and 1941, Churchill’s first response was to tell his countrymen to “keep calm and carry on.”

President Trump has said this also but has met ridicule from much of the press. While the administration is doing much more, it seems still impossible to keep “politics” out of a national pandemic. Yet politics was largely absent from both the world wars and the Cold War, demonstrating how “visible” enemies can overcome even base political emotions.

At first, the current pandemic appears somewhat “overblown,” given comparisons. The common flu, for example, takes about 30,000 American lives each year, yet this statistic is rarely mentioned. Nor is it defined as an “epidemic.”

Yet the refrain to “keep calm ….” is fully appropriate if only to address the sociological dimensions of the above definition. To avoid panic, keep calm. Maybe easier said than done, but essential as a first step. The remainder, like war itself, will take time, resolve, resource, and perseverance.

Past Pandemics

Like any other panic, the current one needs perspective, the basic gift of history. Like war and conflict themselves, pandemics are common throughout history.

Like war and conflict themselves, pandemics are common throughout history.

The Black Death, 14th century, wiped out nearly half of Europe, approximately 200 million people. The Spanish Flu, 1918-1926, took many more lives than even the Great War, about 60 million. A smallpox epidemic in Europe, 1520, took over 50 million lives. In 735 AD, Japan lost 30% of its population to disease. The “Justian Plague,” 541 AD, claimed 40 million.

Closer to home, in 1957, an Asian Flu took 116,000 American lives, yet President Eisenhower refused to even recognize it until the very end. Since 1981, the HIV/AIDS crisis has a toll of 30 million worldwide, while the “Swine Flu” in 2009 took about 200,000 American lives.

These are but samples out of dozens-more historical plagues. But panic-attacks are not confined to disease only. They can spread to war itself and economics.

The current coronavirus has seen a precipitous drop in the stock market, compounding the death toll itself. But the Great Depression of the 1930s, in this context, exceeds all comparison. With a high of 25% unemployed throughout the decade, there were 744 bank closures in 1930 alone. ln 1933, there were 4,000 closures, with a total of 9,000 bank closures for the full decade. Hundreds of billions of personal account-dollars were lost to “thin air,” as millions of American families saw their entire savings disappear for reasons unknown to them.

Hope

Franklin D. Roosevelt, legend to the contrary, never ended the depression; it was as severe in 1940 as when he first took office. But he provided “hope” through a series of “New Deal” programs, including Social Security, that allowed the country to survive the great “pandemic” called the “Depression.”

Hitler, Japan, and the world war brought Americans back to work, but they could never have survived unless they “kept calm and carried on.”

In his first Inaugural Address FDR appealed to hope against the crisis: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  This is still considered the greatest line of all Inaugural speeches.

Is there a lesson here?

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