Spain remained neutral in World War I. While combatants censored the press to sustain morale and hide any vulnerability, Spain had no such concerns. Spanish newspapers freely reported a raging influenza in May 1918 and the months that followed. The earlier cases recorded at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March got no publicity. Americans and others, hearing nothing but reassurance from their own governments, took Spain to be the epicenter.
No one knows for certain the birthplace of the “Spanish flu” of 1918-19, which killed more people than the war. The Spanish called it the French flu. Germans called it Flanders fever. It spread fast, and everyone blamed somebody else.
For Americans, calling the epidemic “Spanish” fits a long, unsavory linkage of germs with foreigners and immigrants. We had the Asian flu of 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69. And then there was H1N1 or the swine flu of 2009-2010, first detected in a ten-year-old boy in California. Remember how everyone called it the American flu?
You don't? Neither do I.
In the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a rowdy mob of American colonists dumped a shipload of tea into the harbor to protest a new tax. Unruly demand for change is a deep-rooted American tradition. So is the call for “law and order” to defend the status quo.
Against wider suffrage. In Rhode Island in the 1840s, armed protesters demanded voting rights for all white men regardless of wealth. Opponents formed a Law and Order Party to preserve the old colonial charter, which allowed only men of property to vote.
Against abolition. “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s was awash in violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. A pro-slavery Law and Order Party accused its opponents of criminal fanaticism and met bloodshed with bloodshed.
Against alcohol. In the later 1800s and early 1900s, temperance sentiment was strongest among Protestants of English descent. Disdainful of beer-drinking Irish and German Catholic immigrants, they formed local Law and Order Leagues to enforce anti-liquor ordinances.
In each case, law and order won out in the short run. The expanded-suffrage leader in Rhode Island was sentenced to life in prison. Questioning the legality of slavery in Kansas could bring five years imprisonment. The 18th Amendment made Prohibition federal law. In the longer run, social change proved beyond the power of law and order to prevent.
No country or organization could have done it alone. Just as viruses aren’t constrained by international boundaries, neither are successful efforts to conquer them. Last week’s certification of Africa as free of wild poliovirus is an achievement in global partnership.
African soccer teams in the 1990s raised awareness with a campaign to “Kick Polio Out of Africa.” African rulers and frontline health workers worked hard for that goal. WHO did strategic planning. UNICEF managed vaccines. CDC headed a global laboratory network. Massive support came from Rotary International, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and dozens of donor governments.
Collaboration and commitment made this achievement possible. What other viruses might we conquer if we decide to work together?
My city-bred mother relished the novelties of rural West Virginia. She drove my brother and me to hand pumps outside one-room country schoolhouses, church ladies’ quilt sales on farmhouse lawns, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s experimental community at Arthurdale. The mailbox at the end of our street, which excited me with the possibility of a new Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse, inspired her for its tie to the birthplace of Rural Free Delivery.
Urban door-to-door mail delivery became common after the Civil War. Farmers asked, why must we travel miles into town to pick up our mail, when we pay as much for stamps as everyone else? Pressure from the National Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance overcame Congress’s reluctance to fund vehicles, road improvements, and rural carriers. The Post Office began experimental routes in West Virginia in 1896. RFD expanded quickly and became permanent in 1902.
Long before American farm families had radios, telephones, or electricity, RFD connected them to the wider world. Rural delivery would never turn a profit. That was not the intent. Like roads and schools, universal postal service helped unite the nation and served the public good.
In my grade school long ago, each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song. Recent events have me asking, to what were we pledging? The flag is a potent symbol, but of what?
Nation emphasizes people; country emphasizes place. “One nation indivisible” asserts a shared American culture, which my teachers called a melting pot. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner thought an American ethos of self-reliance and individualism arose from the interaction of people with place on the American frontier. “A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness,” we sang. “Through every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
What our public officials and military personnel swear to uphold, however, is neither people nor place, nor any individual or agency, but the United States Constitution. The patriotic songs in my grade school didn’t mention it. It lacks the clarion call of “land of the free, home of the brave” or the tenderness of “land that I love . . . my home, sweet home.” Only in high school and beyond did I realize the Constitution's primary claim on my allegiance as an American.
Our neighbor’s Japanese beetle trap is brimming with dead and dying beetles. Maybe I should get one, too. It’s intuitively obvious: More trapped beetles mean a healthier garden, right?
Not so fast. The scent in the trap lures beetles from more than half a mile away. Some wind up in the trap. Others, attracted by the scent, nibble the roses. Unless the trap is placed exactly so and cleaned out frequently, more beetles infest the garden than ever.
I thought of the beetle trap on hearing a recent agency chief praised for overseeing a record number of arrests. I lack the expertise or data to know, in his case, whether more arrests improved or worsened public safety. "Intuitively obvious" doesn’t mean accurate. This I do know: To assess the well-being of a garden or a nation, how many beetles have been trapped—or individuals arrested, or guilty verdicts rendered, or jail cells filled—is the wrong question to ask.
Did Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 have the same status as “slaves” from Ireland? “Yes!” cry the white supremacists. “No!” retort the anti-racists. While reputable historians differ, today’s furor is more about politics than evidence.
Legal documents of the 1620s and 1630s call the Africans “servants.” Blacks in bondage toiled alongside indentured whites, intermarried with them, escaped with them, rebelled with them. Wealthy white landholders preserved their power through steps to divide and conquer.
If I had chosen a field related to medicine and public health, it should have been epidemiology. Detecting patterns, solving mysteries, analyzing maps, tracing history: What could be more fun?
People must always have noticed some diseases spread from person to person. The word quarantine comes from Italian for forty days, the time Venice made ships from infected ports sit at anchor before anyone got off. Romeo and Juliet could have had a happy ending if no one thought a house with the plague had to be boarded up.
Collecting and mapping data has been a basic tool of epidemiology since the 1850s, when John Snow painstakingly traced a London cholera epidemic to one infected well. I highly recommend Steven Berlin Johnson’s engaging account, The Ghost Map.
With the additional tool of genetic analysis, disease detectives can compare cases of an infection to determine the route it traveled. That’s how epidemiologists discovered coronavirus came to New York primarily from Europe, not China. Clues, suspects, red herrings—these sleuths have it all.
Down the road from my house, the luncheon meat smell has faded from Madison’s former Oscar Mayer plant. Armour and Swift were big names in Chicago, where I lived years ago. Meat packers spurred the growth of Milwaukee and gave Green Bay’s football team its name. To me, spikes of coronavirus in meat processing plants feel up close and personal.
Railroads used to carry livestock from the land-rich West to Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s “Hog Butcher for the World.” At the Union Stock Yards, immigrants from eastern Europe cut and packed pork and beef to ship east in refrigerated railroad cars. Upton Sinclair’s bestseller The Jungle (1906) exposed the horrors of Chicago’s assembly-line slaughterhouses. Public outcry led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, but no change in worker conditions.
Union organizing in the 1930s boosted wages and worker safety. For almost half a century, packing plants offered decent manufacturing jobs. However, refrigerated trucks freed the companies from a need to locate near railroad lines. Chicago’s stock yards closed in 1971. Dispersed rural sites allowed for lower pay and less union influence. To supplement local labor, employers recruited documented and undocumented immigrants. Wages plummeted.
Rapid, repetitive, shoulder-to-shoulder work with sharp instruments was dangerous even in better times. For a perfect storm, add a virus that thrives in cool, damp, noisy spaces and threatens anyone less than six feet away. The only way to produce as much meat as Americans want is to endanger the workers who process it.
The hero’s journey, defined by mythologist Joseph Campbell, is the archetypal story structure of most legends, films, and novels. Willing or not, the hero leaves the ordinary world for a strange and dangerous one, overcomes foes and challenges, and returns home transformed. Transformation happens because the hero must grow beyond old mindsets, habits, or beliefs to survive the quest.
We’re in the middle act of a hero’s journey now, thrust out of “normal” into an unfamiliar land of illness, job loss, fear, isolation, and grief. Though my dragons are relatively few, old patterns hold me back, like discomfort with technology or a penchant for family travel. I’m growing more tolerant of human error, more attentive to the here and now. Perhaps larger changes lie ahead.
What transformations may unfold on your hero’s journey as you face the dragons of this strange time?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.