My 110-year-old friend Halie Forstner was reminiscing about the two pandemics she has survived. (How many people do you know who can say that?)
She lost family members to the Spanish flu of 1918-19, “and life was never the same,” she said. Certainly, the loss of lives was catastrophic. The Spanish flu infected 500 million people (one in three worldwide), and killed some 675,000 people in the United States.
USA Today recently reported on the ways in which that pandemic affects our lives more than a century later. The next time you see a tiled bathroom floor, linoleum in the kitchen, or metal bed frames, you can trace it back to the Spanish flu, and soldiers coming home to America from World War I.
The newspaper quoted historian Gary Darden of Fairleigh Dickson University, who said, “The trenches they fought in were filthy, full of lice and rot. When the soldiers returned home, they were obsessed with cleanliness.”
Wood surfaces were difficult to clean, and newly opened theaters and radio stations were advertising cleaning products like Bon Ami, Lysol, and Brillo Soap Pads.
Amid all the tragedy of a global pandemic and a world war, we learned painful lessons that made our world cleaner and healthier.
So when some journalist, many years into the future, attempts to document how American lives changed after the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21, what will be written?
It is too soon to know for sure, but it may likely be remarkable for the nation’s lack of unity in battling an invisible enemy. Will our children and grandchildren be horrified to learn that around half of America laughed off the virus, scoffed at wearing masks, and avoided vaccinations? Or will that merely be considered “standard operating procedure?”
Will Americans of the year 2060, watch old movies and TV shows from a hundred years earlier, and shake their heads in sorrow, or laugh uncontrollably?
I can hear them now. “Seriously, there was some sheriff in Mayberry, North Carolina who didn’t even carry a gun? You could just walk into his office, without passing through a metal detector? People could just enter his home through an unlocked door? That aunt of his was always handing out fruits and vegetables to people. What if she was trying to poison the whole town? Was there any way of knowing what she was up to?”
I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to my 110-year-old friend, but I have been around long enough to remember when you could board an airplane without surrendering your driver’s license, your shoes, your belt, and your dignity. 9/11 was the disruptive event that set those changes in motion.
You could walk into your neighborhood school (through an unlocked front door) and offer to make a donation or volunteer without being considered a potential predator. A series of school shootings were disruptive events that transformed our schools from neighborhood centers to fort-like safe havens.
I remember when you could attend a college or professional sporting event and bring along a picnic lunch. Now your hat must undergo a thorough search, along with your coat, your bag, and your person. There are any number of items that could “set off” an alarm, from nail clippers, to keys, to coins, to implanted medical devices. Meanwhile, those in line behind you must wait until you unload and reload your belongings before they endure the same strip-down. Tell your children that before all the recent disruptive events, you just showed a ticket and walked through the gate, and they will look at you in stunned disbelief.
We are optimistically moving forward in a post-pandemic frame of mind, hopeful for a fresh start. The summer of 2021 should signal a return to wide-open ball games, concerts, and retail and dining establishments.
But make no mistake. We have just endured a life-changing, disruptive event like few others in our nation’s history.
I am wearing a mask much less than I did a year ago, but I won’t be the least bit shy about wearing it in doctors’ offices or in church, during flu season for example. I never did that before the pandemic, but I will now.
When I am showing signs of a cold, my mask will be on. For your sake.
My workplace, and many others are gradually allowing employees to return, but some will choose not to do so. They have proven they can be productive from home, and likely much healthier. That was beginning to be a trend anyway, and the pandemic put it in fast-forward.
And of course, hand sanitizer and better hygiene will always be with us. It took a massive, historic disruption to make that happen, but just like tiled floors and linoleum, it is a change for the better.