Will We Come Together?

People often come together in disaster. Neighbors who had hardly ever spoken to each other turn up with casseroles or building supplies or just helping hands and sympathetic ears in time of disaster -- right? But pandemics aren't like hurricanes or earthquakes. Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (published 1722 about the London plague of 1665) reports, "The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.” Whereas other disasters wreak their havoc quickly and are done, allowing us to come together for rebuilding, a pandemic drags on and on, inducing a gradually growing fatalism, a slowly deepening sense of lost control of our lives.

In the 1918 flu pandemic, pleas for volunteers to care for the sick went largely ignored. About 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the 1918 flu -- over 12 times the number killed in battle in World War I -- yet there have been very few books or cultural products about it. It's as though Americans, as a people, didn't like who they became. We suppressed the shameful memory of how we turned away from each other.

Yet not all Americans turned away. Then, as they are now, health care workers responded with courageous compassion. Whether their example is more widely followed today than it was in 1918 is up to us. One century ago, your 16 great-great-grandparents would have been about the age that you are today. Some of yours might have been health-care workers; probably not all of them were. Now it falls to us to step forward to redeem our great-great-grandparents who didn't. Because the neighborliness to which we are now called is apt to be an extended deployment, we will have to pace ourselves more carefully than we would for a hurricane or earthquake response. We also have technological tools for connecting and supporting each other that our great-great-grandparents didn't have.

This morning I got an email blast to all alumni of one of my alma maters from the university president. She affirmed, "I am certain that the test of this pandemic will give rise to what President Lincoln once described as 'the better angels of our nature.'"

It didn't in 1918. Let us make it so in 2020.

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