There has been an immediate backlash against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s latest measures  to contain Covid-19 even as we enter a particularly difficult time dealing with the global pandemic while cases skyrocket and deaths reach numbers not seen since March and April. I’m not surprised at the anger; in fact, I was expecting it based on previous responses.
But, truth be told, I’m grateful the governor is watching out for the welfare of Virginia citizens. If Covid had another name like, “Smothers You To Death Plague,” would people feel better about the government trying to contain it? What if we renamed it, “The Death Stalker That Attacks Your Organs,” or maybe “The Blood Clot” virus or the “You Lose Your Leg” virus? Would that make it more realistic as something serious to battle?
There is a push-back and rebellion amongst conservatives that I don’t understand. Their anger is over health precautions put in place to slow a deadly, extremely contagious airborne pathogen that is causing an explosion of cases as we enter the holidays.
There’s a saying: “Don’t kill the messenger.” The misplaced blame should be dropped squarely on the shoulders of the global coronavirus pandemic, not Dr. Northam. Republicans, including elected officials, are making jokes about getting around the governor’s guidelines such as holding funerals for their turkeys (to allow larger crowds for Thanksgiving) which makes me wonder how they would feel if they ended up at actual funerals for loved ones. They laughed that they should call their houses “churches” on Thanksgiving (again, to allow for a larger crowd), or that GOP meetings should be held at churches.
What am I not seeing? How have I missed the hilarity of all this? I hear health care workers talk about their case loads, how worn down they are, that they do not see their families to avoid infecting them, that they are put in the position of choosing who receives care, and then they break down and weep remembering patients as well as colleagues who have died from Covid … and every day the numbers continue to soar.
Health officials warn  that “America has officially entered what experts refer to as the ‘exponential’ phase of spread — a rapid multiplying of cases that can’t be contained through traditional measures.” They added that as of four days ago Covid-19 cases were growing in 46 states with 10 breaking single-day records for new cases.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History
In March I bought John Barry’s 2004 book , The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that caused 50-100 million deaths worldwide. My purpose was to get a grasp of what those who lived through it dealt with and how they handled it. History, you know, can be a wonderful teacher.
I was looking for a roadmap of what we were entering in 2020. And I found it.
The story of 1918 offered insights into human nature a hundred years ago that is reflected in the same behavior today. In 1918 people quarantined at home, businesses shut down, and streets were empty. Then, as now, healthcare workers — doctors and nurses and their support teams — toiled through the months of disease and death, and they themselves died caring for the ill, just as they are dying today.
It showed that leadership matters at all levels: president, health experts, as well as state and community leaders such as governors and mayors. Some rose to the task, then and now; others did not, then and now.
In 1918 Philadelphia’s mayor ignored advice from experts who warned that it was unsafe to carry on with a parade supporting the war that resulted in a huge super-spreader event that caused thousands of deaths. Bodies piled up on sidewalks and were buried in mass graves. Barry wrote, “Undertakers, themselves sick, were overwhelmed. They had no place to put bodies…. Undertakers’ work areas were overflowing, they stacked caskets in halls, in their living quarters.”
St. Louis, on the other hand, enacted the recommendations of health experts by mobilizing a responsible and effective plan of action in October 1918. They shut down the city to stop the virus and save lives. The result was a death rate that was the lowest of the 10 largest U.S. cities.
A lesson learned then and now: honesty was essential when communicating with citizens about the seriousness of the pandemic. It was ignored in 1918 “to avoid panicking the public.” It was ignored in 2020 when President Donald Trump acknowledged on February 7 to author Bob Woodward, author of the book, Rage (another book I’m reading), that Covid-19 was deadlier than even the most strenuous strains of influenza. It was downplayed, however, as only the flu.
As a result, Barry wrote, “… those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”
In 2020 the anti-mask and anti-vaccine crowd rejected Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, and is one of the highly trained doctors who make up the Covid-19 task force. Dr. Fauci’s knowledge and skill led America through the AIDs scare in the 1980s. His experience during the Covid-19 crisis is essential.
Perhaps what was most alarming to read was the reemergence of the virus in the winter of 1918-1919, racking up a record number of deaths, similar to what experts in 2020 have warned about since Covid hit early in the year.
And indeed, sadly, it has begun.
Immunologist Dr. Rick Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, warned we could see  “the darkest winter in modern history.” Dr. Bright was a whistleblower who was released from his job when he sounded the alarm early in the pandemic to invest in and stock up on healthcare supplies to battle the virus and invest in vaccine development.
The Spanish flu killed 685,000 people in the U.S. Currently we have lost almost 250,000 Americans as numbers steadily climb.
Conclusion from The Great Influenza author John Barry: “Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that.”
By the end of the book, Barry wrote that “… another pandemic not only can happen…. It almost certainly will happen,” something then-President George W. Bush recognized in the summer of 2004 when he read the book and then began preparing a federal government response plan.
And here we are.
Anti-mask rebellion in the spring
Because of the dire nature of the virus when we first heard of it in March, my family is one that hunkered down, followed recommendations, and tried to remain safe. Basic hygiene habits – especially handwashing – had been drilled into my kids their entire lives, something that came from my early years working in a hospital, and a mother who ingrained in my sisters and me the necessity of clean hands.
I’m an introvert so staying home in the spring was not that big of a deal. The world was cancelled so there was no need to go out except on necessary excursions to the grocery store or pharmacy. Online ordering made it especially easy to avoid shopping inside stores. My kids are grown so there were no school worries although, since we homeschooled for 16 years, we would have continued. In the spring I spent time helping other moms with school ideas concerning teaching their children at home.
And then the dissension began. The acting out, as I called it when my kids were little. The rebellion to the rules. Except this time it was adults, not young children … and was reminiscent of the stomping of feet with arms crossed and a defiant, “No!” attitude. From adults. Who felt their liberties were being suppressed.
I didn’t understand the attitude. But it took root and grew and spread and caught up with conspiracy theories and then Facebook exploded with confusion and misinformation and people pushing their points of view … it became exhausting.
A Covid-19 death in the family
On April 24 my step-dad, who had been in my life for 40 years, died from Covid-19. Yes, he was elderly (92). Yes, he was in an assisted living facility. Yes, he checked off those boxes for the anti-mask crowd, and some treated his death as if it was no big deal. I was stunned. And then I was angry. He was a World War II veteran, part of the Greatest Generation that some of those same people had hailed in the past – you know, the generation that had saved the world. But now he was just another statistic, another one to be culled from the herd. Done. Check!
My feelings hardened. My thoughts were that if this pandemic had been treated seriously from the beginning starting at the White House, many deaths including my step-dad’s could possibly have been avoided. I had no patience for the “it’s a hoax” crowd.” Nor for the “I-can’t-be-bothered-to-wear-a-mask” crowd.
“It’s not a hoax!” I wanted to scream at every one of them.
Facing winter 2020
The difference between then and now is that many Republican elected officials are following down the same rabbit hole of conspiracies and echo chambers along with people I’ve worked with in politics for decades. Everyone is angry at the governor – you know, the one who is a physician and knows about deadly pathogens.
As we watch the blueprint from 1918 play out in front of our eyes — as cases explode across the nation — Governor Northam tightened conditions that had been relaxed during the warmer summer months when outdoor activities were safely possible. As cold weather takes over and people move indoors to petri dishes of infection, we are seeing hospitals in some areas of the country overwhelmed, and doctors and nurses overextended.
By not following safe practices, it is making this humanitarian disaster more difficult on healthcare workers. I see our governor being proactive before the disaster that is playing out elsewhere engulfs Virginia.
I suppose at this point I’ll never understand what is so infringing on liberty about wearing a mask. I’ve read too many stories of people who died or were maimed for life by this virus to make me think the five seconds to put on a mask and protect myself and others is an affront to my freedom. The longer this continues, part of the cost we all will pay is a devastated economy with long-lasting damage to businesses and individuals.
This Thanksgiving my husband and I will be dining alone and plan to enjoy the day together, kind of like we did when we spent a couple of Thanksgivings in the high country of North Carolina’s mountains while in our 20s. I read a Facebook post that said, “Zoomsgiving is better than ICU Christmas.” Boy, if that isn’t the truth!
Our millennial kids are extremely cautious around us and themselves, understanding their responsibility in a pandemic world.
As our thirty-something son said, “I miss hosting game nights. But I’d miss my friends and family so much more if people got sick and died because of my actions. We can wait for the vaccine.” Our daughter echoed his thoughts, noting that she was “terrified of being a virus vehicle and being the reason someone more vulnerable gets it.”
That’s my kids.
Hopefully, our precautions today mean we will all be together next year for the holidays. My wish for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s is that we do everything we can to stay safe and help slow Covid-19’s spread. By now, we all know the drill: wear a mask, wash your hands, physical distance from others, and be responsible with group gatherings.
As Covid cases soar, it’s good to see Governor Northam’s willingness to stand up and protect Virginians. It’s called leadership. History will list him in the responsible column with the leaders of St. Louis in 1918, and not in the disastrous column with the mayor of Philadelphia.
In the end, it comes down to a sense of personal responsibility. I leave you with this anonymous tweet: “How privileged is your life where wearing a mask is the most oppressed you’ve ever felt?”
Be safe and stay well.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ” -Matthew 25:40 (KJV)