by Ruth Kiefson, 4-27-2020
A hundred years ago, my grandfather was one of more than fifty million people around the world whose lives were cut short by the Spanish flu. The disease mainly killed young adults, men and women who were just stepping onto the stage of life. Now the coronavirus, a new flu, is invading the bodies of hundreds of thousands of people from East Asia to North America, turning our lives upside down. However, unlike the Spanish Flu, its main victims are the elderly, the grandparents, like me.
When we learn about other pandemics, it is a study of numbers, of interesting facts— the deaths, types of pathogens and their paths around the world. But for some of us, there’s a deeper dimension because it shaped the lives of our families for generations. Living in the age of coronavirus is bringing back home a grandfather I never knew and my father’s story, a boy whose life was punctured by a tragic death. The particularity of pandemics, like all historical events, shapes not only families, but it shapes our cultures and mass consciousness in unique ways.
My father was born in 1912 into a Jewish family, in a small town in Poland, a shtetl, called Klesk, between the cities of Minsk and Pinsk, near the border of Russia. It was a time of enormous social upheaval— just before the first World War and the Russian Revolution. They lived in a Jewish ghetto, in a house with a dirt floor; potatoes were the mainstay of their diet. Pogroms, attacks by virulently anti-Semitic vigilante gangs, were part of their daily reality.
In Russia, at that time, they conscripted all young men into the army, and, as the story was told to me, they could be sent to Siberia. For Jewish boys, being conscripted was tantamount to death. Shortly after my father was born in 1912, his father, Louis, decided to escape a life of oppression, joining the exodus of young men fleeing to America, the “land of opportunity.” Then he would bring his wife and infant son to join him.
But their plans were derailed by the onset of World War I, making travel impossible. Eight years were to pass before the family could be reunited. I can only imagine Louis’ life in the new world— a young man, waiting for his family, one of millions of the purposeful immigrants flooding the tenements of the lower East Side of New York City, working in sweatshops in a manufacturing America.
The momentous day finally arrived, and as the three walked down the plank, a tall handsome man waved to them. Bernie ran ahead, yelling “Tata, Tata” (father, in Yiddish) only to find out that it was his Uncle Abey, who had come to meet them. His father had died two weeks earlier, a casualty of the Influenza epidemic.
Fortunately, I knew my father intimately until he died at 83, but this story is all I know of my grandfather— the social, political, health events that shaped his life and the generations that followed. For both my father and me, the personal side of his life… a blank page.
The Spanish Flu came in the wake of WWI, the most hideous war that the world had ever seen—the first war in the age of industrialization— the first bombs from airplanes, the first machine guns, the first use of poison gas in war. The world was seeing technology put to work to kill en masse in ever more grotesque ways. And then came the pandemic that killed young adults like another World War, leaving millions of children fatherless, motherless, grandparents burying their own children. For the next couple of years, it lowered life expectancy in the US, from 51 to 39 years of age. What else does it do to a society when the victims are the young strong trees with smooth bark, of marrying, childbearing age?
COVID19 primarily kills those at the end of their lives, the old trees with gnarled and brittle limbs. Young people can’t know what we’ve gained by living this long or what it feels like to be old. They can’t know the “trouble I’ve seen” or the myriad of days and long nights that finally squeeze sweet droplets of acceptance and humility out of a stubborn heart. The concerns and sensibilities of youth are very different from that of the elderly— as different as birds from squirrels, turtles from fish. For some of them, particularly if there’s no old person whom they love, really love, the thought of “letting them die” could seem reasonable, plausible, especially when politicians imply it. What’s so bad about dying a few years earlier? Is it worth the economic cost to society to save the lives of the elderly at risk for serious complications from COVID19?
Weighing the needs of human life against the needs of the market seems to be non-negotiable, the “way life is;” we’re conditioned to see the world through the eyes of the rich and powerful. Even when we live paycheck to paycheck and don’t personally benefit from a “strong economy” (which is most of us), society nudges us to think competitively— young against old, employed against unemployed, insiders against outsiders, saving lives against saving the economy. We are trained to be passive (see it as “progress”!) when industry threatens the health of the planet and produces food in a way that creates conditions for new deadlier viral outbreaks. We’re trained to see everything as a commodity, something to be bought and sold on the market. So the lives of those who no longer produce or bear children are seen as less valuable.
The virus that invades our bodies also has the potential to agitate our consciousness and allow us to imagine society anew. Committing ourselves to save the lives of the elderly affirms that nothing is more precious than human life. We all deserve to have as much of it as we can— whether we’re elderly, in prison, living on the street, or living in the shadows. It’s a tragedy when anyone’s life is a blank page. When we bump against limits, let them not be the limits created to preserve the market.