The extra time I’ve had due to normal routines being mostly halted during the pandemic I have put to use working on some of my family history. I have a couple of big boxes of letters from my mother’s side of the family that I’ve been arranging in chronological order (from the late 1930s on) and transcribing so I’ll have a record of family events and their response to larger events in the world. Amid the mundane news of children’s doings, various visits, and thanks for holiday gifts are some fascinating insights into how previous generations experienced the world.
In 1965, I had a bad case of pneumonia that kept me out of fifth grade for almost a month. In a letter from my grandmother’s sister-in-law to my mother, my great-aunt, Jo, expresses her gratitude that I have recovered. She then goes on to reflect on her experience of pneumonia and other diseases and how the population lived in fear of them.
“Pneumonia used to strike terror in every home that it entered. Today, because of the new drugs, there is no need for terror. I wonder if your generation can ever know how great was the anguish which was created years ago by many diseases which today are non-existent or from which fear has been abolished.”
I read those words written by my “Auntie Jo” Irwin just last week in the eighth week of the shelter in place order in New York, about the time we heard that more than 80,000 people had died so far from the pandemic. The fear known by previous generations has not been abolished, it has taken new forms.
And I realized my great-aunt’s limited perspective, living an affluent life in Cleveland, OH. She appears not to have been aware that, in countries around the world in 1965 – and today – there is still great terror in the face of killer pandemics. Ebola has killed thousands, and is still active in Central African nations. Polio still infects children in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And now a new virus has struck fear around the world.
Above all, I pray we may have compassion for those who are least able to have access to medical care, who lack running water, who don’t have the resources to treat those who are ill. Even though we are afraid, I hope our main response is one of love, of caring, and of working to bring hope to everyone who is affected.