What the Archives Didn’t Teach Me About Life in a Pandemic

In researching my book, I spent months studying primary sources: newspaper articles, pamphlets, public health records, personal correspondence, diary entries and other materials. I never expected that I would see first-hand what a global contagious threat would look like in my life time. I had an idea of the progression of quarantine and the pattern of media coverage. At the same time, no book or microfilm prepared me for a number of aspects in this experience.

  • The Waiting Game: Nothing that I’ve read addressed what it is like to feel fine, have your family feel fine, but know that the danger is coming. . .for months and is not a matter of if, but when. I’m sure the people in the army camps of 1918 that got hit with the March/April wave of influenza felt similarly–just no one wrote about it.
  • Balancing Crisis Mode with Everyday Life: In the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, townsperson Elizabeth Drinker made daily notes in her diary that combined mundane activities like taking a walk with notes about the latest death toll and friends who had passed. I never imagined how strange it would be to do the basic things we have to do, like buy dog food, within the context of the COVID-19 cloud. Everything is the same, yet it’s not the same.
  • Some people are fools. Newspapers of the past occasionally mentioned individuals that broke quarantine and were then arrested. Since they didn’t have social media in 1925, for example, there weren’t Instagram photos capturing crowds flaunting their poor choices and lack of consideration for others.
  • Parenting in a pandemic: This is a big one that NO ONE talked about in the past. Children were part of past epidemics, of course, and were mentioned when they became ill and died, but the stories of active parenting during such a time were not documented and a preserved. As parents, it’s a tricky time. Not only are we juggling childcare and work, but we are also trying to balance crisis and despair with making sure our kids are fed, engaged, and have pretty good days. We have the added challenge of explaining and demonstrating this new reality without terrifying them and inciting panic. At the end of the day, our kids deserve to think that the world is good, they are safe, and this will pass.
  • How much I would miss the world during social distancing. I am certain that the groups of students quarantined at the University of Kansas and other schools felt lonely, bored, and isolated. However, we don’t have their personal testimonies about the experience. We are privileged to be safe here as a family. Yet, I will fully admit that I mourn our normal reality.
    Being extra-extroverted, I knew that I would have these feelings. But it’s not just my friends that I miss. I love being part of a community–like a normal one, in which you see the same faces at stores, parks, karate, and on campus. I miss teaching to human students sitting in front of me, even if they fall asleep sometimes. I want maskless faces to slightly breech the six-foot distancing just to chat for fun, comment on the weather, or to just return a “hello.” Someday we’ll get back to a new version of that world.

What does this all mean, aside from my own lamenting? We need to be writing our stories and recording the diverse experiences of others so that future generations can better understand what living at this time was like.

The Past Repeats Itself: Epidemics Then and Now

I spent the past few years trying to find out everything I could about disease and the impact of epidemics on society. For each of the outbreaks featured in my book (and for some that didn’t make the cut), I did my best to bring together every tiny piece of information or perspective that would help me better understand what how the crisis unfolded. Over the last few months, weeks, and days, I have felt an eerie sense of dej√° vu.

Cycle of an epidemic. The narratives of epidemics seem to follow an Aristotealean plot structure, with the story shifting into crisis mode, the escalation–marked by fear and panic, and then finally a resolution, marked by reassuring promises and optimism before eventually returning to the new normal. It is both intriguing and disturbing how states have varied on their own perception of the current stage.

Innovation in creating transforming spaces into hospitals. As cases outnumber hospital beds, public health authorities have had to get creative, turning houses and other spaces into makeshift medical facilities. In 1944, when a polio outbreak overtook the town of Hickory, NC, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis helped transform a summer camp into a hospital in just three days. It was heralded as the “Miracle of Hickory.” As exemplified in this story about the Comfort ship in New York, public health authorities are already seeking facilities that could potentially become treatment centers.

Prejudice, Stigma, and Blame. Fear and uncertainly lead to misconceptions about disease origin and transmission. Too many times in the past and now, people blame a race, culture, and/or place for somehow “bringing” or causing an outbreak. I’m intentionally not going to give historic or current examples here. Stop profiling and recognize that contagions have always emerged. Focus on what unites us. We need global cooperation, not racist misinformation.

Opportunists Capitalizing on Crisis. Unfortunately, epidemics also bring out the unscrupulous, those trying to make money off of panic, fear, and tragedy. Physicians and laypeople alike used to concoct their own “medicine” and advertise it in the local papers.

From The Federal Gazette, October 2, 1793, p. 2

Today’s regulation makes it more difficult for people to market their products as “cures.” However, we can certainly lump the hand sanitizer misers and TP hoarders selling their overpriced stockpiles into this category.

Emergence of Quack Remedies & Myths. On a related note, the profiteers are only successful because this is a vulnerable time. Without scientifically-backed cures (and sometimes with them), people have always come up with their own ideas about disease, which is exacerbated during epidemics. Past “cures” for various contagions have included smoking cigars (even for children), gunpowder, turpentine, enemas, hot air balloon rides, drinking blood, and onions. Some of these are not too far off of the COVID-19 “remedies.” No, drinking salt water will not kill the virus, despite the claims of a popular social media post.

Unsung Heroes. The good of humanity to pitch in and help. On the bright side, epidemics also bring out the helpers. Health professionals, clergy, volunteers, and others step up to assist those in need, risking their own lives so that others can receive treatment, food, clothing, and/or comfort. Notably, numerous members of the Free African Society worked tirelessly in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Many succumbed to the disease themselves.

We are already seeing unsung heroes in action. In as much as we recognize health professionals, we also need to praise food program distributors, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers and others who keep society together. It is and will be the helpers that push us through.