We endured 2020 and are beginning to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as COVID-19 vaccine distributions increase.
We are still here, so now what? Will the future be bright again?
Every day, we hear the doom-mongers who proclaim we are entering a new era of germaphobia. People will refuse to leave their homes, social distancing will be the new norm, and the masks will never go away.
Psychologists and relationship experts are worried we are witnessing a new era where physical touch is a thing of the past. No more group hugs or human contact.
Economically, theorists are prophesying we are seeing a future collapse of markets and radical employment shifts. Buy gold and silver now.
Others fear for the unstable political future of this country.
On the other hand, we are seeing a newfound optimism.
With vaccination rates on the rise and governors lifting mandates, we are seeing a ground swell of hope. People are going out and spending again. The stock market is reaching new highs.
Even President Biden is looking to the future. For example, his $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill does more than set aside money for existing roads and bridges. It reimagines what infrastructure really is and what we need for the future.
As we continue to battle COVID-19 and approach an end to the pandemic, we need to pause and reflect upon these two extreme reactions.
Our future cannot be all doom and gloom, and it cannot be all unbridled optimism. So, where are we going as a society and as a global community?
We need to take a lesson from the past, looking back 100 years to the flu of 1918 to gain some perspective.
The 1918 pandemic had an economic and social impact that went on for over a generation. The possible connection between the 1918 pandemic and the Great Depression have never fully been researched.
Countless businesses closed and never returned during the pandemic. Rural villages throughout the world simply disappeared and were never repopulated.
With over 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S. alone, calculating the loss to families was, and is, impossible. In November 1918, New York City had 31,000 children who lost one or both parents.
Yet, a shift in thinking also took place, as the nation stopped focusing upon the 1918 pandemic.
Media outlets and commentators quickly stopped writing about it or reporting it. Few sociologists delved into the immediate or long-term impacts. The country just wanted to move on.
Until 1970, very little research was done about the social dynamics and fallout of the pandemic.
Alfred Crosy’s groundbreaking work, Epidemic and Peace, 1918, points out that public discussion quelled quickly after the bulk of the crisis was over. Even textbooks and scholarly journals ignored the subject for decades.
The impact of this collective silence following the 1918 flu can still be seen in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We rebelled against mask mandates, closure of churches and lockdowns – just like they did in 1918.
We did not learn anything about public health because we refused to remember the past. Thus, we fought the same fights they did in 1918.
Like today, the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic saw two extremes.
On the one hand, there was a huge rise in depression and mental health issues.
Amid prohibition, alcohol consumption was on the rise to the point that in 1922 51% of physicians thought of it as a necessary therapeutic agent.
Most striking was the spike in suicide rates even as late as 1921, which saw over a 20% increase versus previous years.
Karl Menninger, an esteemed psychiatrist, noted that psychosis and psychosomatic symptoms were associated with many patients who contracted the flu of 1918.
The trauma and massive loss of life caused by both World War I and the pandemic left countless Americans in a state of fear and anxiety that lasted for years. The level of societal survivor’s guilt was unimaginable.
On the other hand, most of our history books recall the post-pandemic years as an era of optimism.
It was the “Roaring ’20s,” which has been romanticized as the age of endless possibilities.
Those that survived the war and the flu were celebrating that they were still kicking. We saw never-ending parties, along with a transportation and communication revolution.
Like today, people and corporations were reluctant to spend their savings, take out loans or make investments during the pandemic. Afterward, many began spending and making investments at unprecedented levels, infusing significant cash into the economy.
Ultimately, the U.S. saw a 17.7% increase in the GDP between 1920 and 1929.
We remember it like it was a page out of The Great Gatsby, but it was only that for the folks dressed in tuxedos.
Working class people were still recovering from the economic devastation created by the pandemic. Once they dug themselves out, they were hit with the Great Depression caused by the excesses of the wealthy during the 1920s.
As successes against the novel coronavirus begin to pick up steam, we need to reflect upon the lessons of the past in order to avoid the errors following the 1918 pandemic when the nation functionally swept the horrors of five years under the rug.
We cannot, and should not, seek to return to 2019 any more than Jay Gatsby, despite his best efforts, could recreate 1917.
We need to take stock of the present and remember the past in order to make a path forward that includes all of us.
We cannot simply focus on one social-economic group. We cannot just talk about the economy without considering public health and, yes, mental health.
Rather, we must take a more holistic view and approach, acknowledging that the decisions we make today with regard to addressing all the various impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect future generations.