Thinking about what lies ahead

Over the past several months — months when I felt increasingly trapped at home due to a virus over which humans seem to have no control — I searched for some sort of meaning to it all. I certainly found it hard to write about travel and good times; I seriously considered renaming my blog.

Good Places in Long Ago Times came to mind, or Distant Memories of the Faraway.

Now that there are some hopeful signs that the world will once again open up, albeit not as quickly or totally as I would wish, I am consumed by thoughts of what the future will hold. Will we, months from now, still be hunkered down, focused on the perils that may await us if we travel too far and too fast, both figuratively and literally?

Have we learned anything over the past 13 months? And just what are the lessons that we could or should learn from this modern-day plague?

I, for one, have learned that being with others is always better than being apart. A year of separation from loved ones has not made us better. If anything, this year has induced in many of us a kind of stupor, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Some of those I know truly believe that we will be wearing masks in public for the rest of our days.

Can you imagine not ever again seeing a smile on the face of a stranger?

Others are still filled with fear for themselves, but mostly for loved ones and coworkers — and, yes, fear for the teachers, the caregivers, the first responders. It is a paralyzing thought that keeps them homebound and alone. That is far from the “good life” that I choose to embrace. There is much sadness around us these days.

Bitterness, anger, rebellion, distrust and angst — these are the symptoms of perilous times. There are medical authorities and social scientists who firmly believe that the collateral damage of this pandemic will constitute a growing future crisis of far-reaching proportions.

It was with all that in mind that my husband and I planned an early April visit to see relatives in Maine. I might add that we booked the trip only because we, and those we planned to visit, had been totally vaccinated, and because we had an airline credit that would cover our flight costs. But it had been far too long since we had seen and laughed with our cousins, who are very good friends as well as relatives.

We were all ready for a brief reunion. It has been a difficult year for all of us in individual ways, and we needed some respite in the form of togetherness. The four of us were together nearly two years ago for a glorious two weeks touring Portugal and the Azores, and we were eager to repeat that experience on home turf.

Masked travelers were no surprise; crowded airports were.

Flying out of Little Rock National at 7 a.m. was easy. There were few flights scheduled, fewer passengers waiting. The plane was small — 2×2 seating and half empty. But changing planes in Charlotte proved to be a totally different experience. Normally a large and busy airport, it was especially chaotic this time. We attributed the crowds to Spring Break and Easter travelers, but still we were surprised that although officials are still warning against unnecessary travel, so many would choose to fly.

The flight was filled — shoulder to shoulder, middle seats as well. We were greeted with a hand sanitizer packet, offered by a blue-gloved hand, not by smiles and words of welcome. There was to be no beverage service and no snacks. Along with seat belt and emergency oxygen instructions, we were admonished to keep our masks on for the entire duration of the flight. We settled in with our books for the next two and a half hours, noticing that even the in-flight magazine bore a “sanitized” label.

There were no huge crowds in Portland, Maine, our destination; just a steady stream of masked travelers. The mood was quiet, almost somber. Visitors to Maine from beyond the neighboring New England states who are not fully vaccinated still must provide proof of a negative test or undergo a voluntary 10-day quarantine. And masks are required still in all public places.

In our newly-adopted home state of Arkansas, the mask mandate and social distancing were relaxed by the governor effective March 30. However, many local businesses still required masks when we departed. We returned to a different world. Although we still carry our face masks with us, many of the signs have been removed from public places. I attended a meeting this past week that did not require them, and I was able to sit next to friends without three feet of space between chairs.

Coming home to relaxed rules is refreshing

Last night my husband and I joined a friend for dinner at a casual pizza place near our home. All the signs have been removed, and only one or two patrons entered with masks. Even most of the servers were unmasked and smiling. I asked about that, wondering if the younger, unvaccinated employees were nervous about increased exposure.

The answer: “No, not really. But would you like me to put on my mask?” So, the thought is still with us — with us all — that we have not yet returned to normal. More importantly, perhaps, none of us quite knows what normal means anymore. And we still receive somewhat conflicting advice from our leaders. We can’t help but wonder if we are moving too fast, or in the wrong direction as we hear more news reports about growing numbers of infections in other states.

For now at least, each one of us must set personal boundaries. I’m not sure what they will be for me, going forward. What I do know is that seeing the smiles on the faces of friends and family is important. And I look forward to the time when it will no longer be a question of wearing a mask or seeing a smile.

I still hope that the time will come sooner rather than later. I can now believe that the day is approaching when I can book a trip without also having an option if it is canceled. I look forward to making future memories in those faraway places, and to sampling, once again, all the good food that is waiting to be enjoyed.

No, I have decided not to rename the blog, but rather to continue to search out new experiences in interesting destinations.

Ring those bells . . .

A random Facebook post from a faraway friend captured my imagination this past week. And now it has become a “cause” because I can’t seem to help getting caught up in grand ideas that are designed to bring people together in quirky, frivolous ways. Great things often come from small and simple acts. This time it seems a lot of others have joined in with enthusiasm. I hope it lasts, and I hope it grows.

It has been reported that the effort was begun by a housewife and “mum” in the U.K. who thought it would be a good memory for her children in years to come. I learned about it via several Facebook posts, among them one from a relative in Norway; and the word is spreading fast!

Just as the balcony singing across Italy seemed so spontaneous and emotionally uplifting in the terrible, early days of the pandemic, this recent request for citizens of the world to gather on their front porches at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve strikes an emotional chord with me. I want to be a part of it. I want to hear bells ringing from every doorstep on my street. Then I want to watch the television news coverage of bells ringing in other time zones and in other nations. It will restore my faith that people everywhere — from Capetown to Chicago, From Anchorage to Ankara, from Dublin to Denver are more alike than they are different, in the words of Maya Angelou. I want to celebrate with those people on apartment balconies and front porches all across the world. I am gathering up my bells!

Does anyone remember Hands Across America?

It was 1986. It was a BIG IDEA. Organized by USA for Africa, the same organization that produced the star-studded video concert We Are the World in 1985, Hands Across America was designed to underscore the need for funding to fight devastating famine in Africa, and also to address hunger and homelessness in the U.S.

The thought of people from all walks of life clasping hands to form a human chain stretching from the West Coast to the East to highlight the plight of those who needed help was more than I could resist. I became an early supporter. It was conceived as a benefit effort, not only to address problems but to be a ray of hope for those who had little else to sustain them. The 80s were difficult times for many Americans and for the world, although the sting of those years has faded over time.

The route was designated and mapped, and for a small donation, individuals were assigned a place to be at a specific hour — 3 p.m. Eastern time, May 25, or noon Pacific time. It was a Sunday. I gathered up my family, including my husband and young son plus several equally spirited friends. We drove about 30 minutes to be at our designated spot along a highway not far from our suburban Dallas neighborhood. We arrived shortly before 2 p.m. to find only a few others scattered along the roadway. I remember being somewhat disappointed that the crowd wasn’t as large as I had hoped.

But, as happened in other communities, we joined hands at the appointed hour and stood in solidarity under the Texas sun for a cause that was born from a dream, a cause we believed had the potential to change the world. We stretched our line along the roadway as far as possible. It was reported that there were breaks in the line throughout the nation, but in a cornfield in Iowa, in the geographic center of the United States, 16,000 people gathered. There were throngs in New York, in California, and in Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 was rained out but people stood in the rain for another reason.

It is said that long-haul truckers honked as they passed the lines along the country’s highways. It is said that a few stopped and joined the chain for brief moments. In some small towns, church bells rang out as neighbors gathered along their streets, one hand in another. And anyone who participated felt uplifted by it all.

President Ronald Reagan joined hands with others at the White House and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill brought the U.S. Capitol into the chain. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton joined in in Little Rock, and scores of entertainers lent their names and their support to the effort. A theme song, Hands Across America, was broadcast simultaneously from radio stations coast to coast. For 15 minutes or so on one day in 1986, millions of people came together in a most unusual way.

Even though the actual human chain did not span the 3,000 plus miles as intended, it is estimated that more than five million individuals participated, perhaps as many as 6.5 million. Though there were empty spots along the route, it is also said that if those who joined the effort could have been equally spaced, the line would have stretched from coast to coast, and the effort was termed a success by the organizers, raising more than $15 million after expenses. Many of the participants donated more than the stipulated fee for the privilege of joining total strangers to see an audacious idea take shape.

So it is this year. It’s an outrageous request to ask people across the globe to step onto their front porches Christmas eve to perform a symbolic act — “to spread Christmas spirit and help Santa fly his sleigh” — with no thought of reward. But it’s also inspiring, isn’t it?

I want to hear bells echoing throughout my neighborhood the evening of December 24, and I want to see news reports of millions of people in scores of other countries shaking their own bells with an energy that could change the world.

Is that too fanciful a dream? Perhaps, but I hope not. Even if it doesn’t shake the world, perhaps it can open hearts, spark a new hopefulness, contribute to a happier holiday, and become the source of lasting smiles for many who have precious little to smile about this year.

So, enlist your neighbors, spread the word to friends and family, join neighborhood and online groups that are springing up to support what has become known as “The Christmas Eve Jingle 2020.”

Get those bells ready!

At the very least, perhaps it will be a fond memory, and provide a unique story for future grandmothers to tell their grandchildren in years to come.

We all know that 2020 has been a tough year. We all want the coming year to be better. And, no matter what holiday or holy day one celebrates this December, the year is coming to an end. Each of us must now look ahead to 2021. We cannot escape the passage of time, and we cannot turn back the calendar to a date that was more pleasant or more “normal.” All we can do is move on, so why not begin the process of moving ahead with a bell in each hand and new purpose in our hearts? It’s up to each one of us to make a difference.

I believe in hope and I know that we could all use a new measure of hope this season.

I remember Hands Across America, I remember We Are the World, and I want to be a witness as another Big Idea comes alive!

We’ve been here before . . .

. . . and, no doubt, we will be again.

The last global pandemic did not occur a century ago. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” was epic, but there have been more recent versions that were widespread and devastating, causing more than one million deaths worldwide and upwards of 100,000 deaths in the United States. But hardly anyone remembers.

It is important to point out that the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 is not without precedent; only the actions we have taken are unprecedented.

Dr. Deborah Birx said as much in the Good Friday Coronavirus Task Force Briefing. “We’ve never before taken a national, or a global, approach to mitigation. This is unprecedented,” she said.

Dr. Birx did not specify what was done during the 1957-58 Pandemic and the 1968 Pandemic. I cannot help but assume that, during her career, she studied those health crises, and that she is familiar with the statistics. Granted, the country was not shut down, and widespread stay-at-home orders were not issued.

However, schools and businesses in some states were closed, makeshift hospitals and treatment centers were mobilized in some cities, citizens were urged not to travel if it was not necessary. Fear and uncertainty were widespread, and the number of infections grew steadily over the course of several months. In the fall of 1957, at the start of the school year, localized outbreaks resulted in high absenteeism, and businesses reported that between 10 and 20% of the work force was affected.

In 1958, there was a second wave in the United States, more devastating than the first the previous fall. There are normally second, and even third, waves of infection. Some, like AIDS and Ebola, never go away but are ultimately controlled. They are hardly newsworthy, but they are often devastating.

News coverage, however, was very different in the mid-20th Century, described as “low key,”  and social media did not yet exist. There was no daily death count reported by the media, even though it is now conceded that about 40,000 Americans died in the fall of 1957 due to the flu. The first wave of infection was more deadly for children and young adults, while the second wave in 1958 seemed to target people over age 65.

A Century of Pandemic Experience

The 1957-58 pandemic is known as the “least deadly” of the three major 20th Century pandemics. Statistics vary, but the official estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 1.1 million deaths globally, with approximately 116,000 in the United States. A vaccine had been made available in late August 1957, but it was deemed to be only 45 to 60% effective. Officials still recommended that Americans take advantage of the “flu shot.”

This particular influenza, identified as an H2N2 strain, disappeared after only 11 years, according to an article, “Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century,” by Edwin D. Kilbourne.

In 1968, however, another virus would appear, this time a new strain that would prove more troublesome and more deadly. Once again, it spread rapidly, but its severity would depend on a variety of factors. Now categorized as an H3N2 virus, it remains to this day the “major and most troublesome influenza A virus in humans,” according to Kilbourne. First identified in the United States in September, this pandemic also claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans and at least one million people worldwide.

Another flu made an appearance less than a decade later, in November 1977. Although it was generally mild, it was again a variant of the previous H3N2, termed a “juvenile age-restricted, global pandemic.” It appeared first in the Soviet Union, and was initially termed the Russian flu. It targeted children and young people, thought to be susceptible because they had not developed antibodies to this particular strain of virus. About the same time, a return of the H1N1, which was the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, was noted, but in slightly different, mutated form. Interestingly, the 1977 virus continues to confound researchers.

CDC reporting of infections and deaths has changed over the years, but by looking quickly at available statistics, the range of American deaths during the 1977 flu season could be placed between 6,000 and 43,000.

The Reality of Pandemics

Anyone age 70 or older might have a faint recollection of the Asian Flu in the late 1950s.  Some memory of the 1977 Hong Kong Flu should linger with most Americans who have reached about age 50. The Russian Flu seems perfectly forgettable unless a family was personally affected by it. Finally, we should not forget the 2009 flu that circulated the globe in 2009 and 2010. That one, unlike the two previous, was most serious in children and young adults. Older adults, particular those over 65, were more likely to have some immunity from the virus, even though it was a novel strain of H1N1.

Why is it, then, that there seems to be an American amnesia about these previous events? The “seasonal flu” that causes little alarm these days is a sobering reminder that these old viruses are still around. Also, every year, the flu claims the lives of between 6,000 and 70,000 Americans, based on CDC estimates. Every new epidemic has similarities to past pandemics. According to epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, many seasonal viruses are just enough different that previously-developed treatments and vaccines may offer some relief, but they are not foolproof. And no sure prevention or cure exists for any viral infection.

Like everyone else, I have never seen anything quite like this. I do, however, have some memories of 1957, 1968 and 1977. Recently, through research, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about plagues, pandemics and the recurrent spread of virulent viruses.

It’s not the current number of infected, nor even the number of deaths that has me most concerned. I feel for those who become seriously ill, and I weep with those families who lose loved ones to a new respiratory virus, one for which there is no known treatment, and about which little is known. All of us are affected. I know with certainty that our “normal” will never be as it was.

But I also lived through the polio scare, measles and chicken pox, and knew of smallpox and tuberculosis. Even the plague. Yes, it too still exists. Bubonic plague cases are not uncommon, to this day, in the Mountain states, but it is a bacterial infection and it is spread differently, through direct contact with infected fleas. *(There are some researchers who now believe that the Black Death of the Middle Ages was not the plague at all, but a rapidly-spreading, highly-infectious virus instead.) 

Looking Ahead to Post-pandemic life

What is most memorable about the 2020 pandemic may very well be the international reaction to it, the effect on global economies, and the disruption of every aspect of our lives. It was informally tagged COVID-19 because it was first reported to the World Health Organization office in China as a novel form of pneumonia on December 31, 2019. On February 11, 2020, is was officially christened as SARS-CoV-2, because it is a “genetic cousin” of the 2002 SARS virus. 

Just in case you didn’t know, there are only seven coronaviruses that have been identified: Four cause the “common cold,” and three are the triggers for SARS, MERS and the current pandemic. Whether that should make us all feel better or lead to additional worries is debatable.

However, whether there is a second wave of the current novel Coronavirus, or it continues to be a seasonal viral infection much like the H1N1, it’s foolish to assume there will be no more epidemics — even serious pandemics — in our lifetime. They happen regularly. And there may be more novel coronaviruses identified in the future.

To return to Dr. Birx’s statement about global response. No, governments have never before acted even remotely as they did at the onset of this infection. (Well, maybe the Black Plague?)

The response in 2020 is unprecedented not only in scale, but in geography, economic upheaval, and in disruption of normal activity. Self-isolation, mandated shutdowns, cancelled classes and closed schools, shuttered businesses, perceived shortages of healthcare equipment, sickness and death are by no means localized phenomena. But we have become a mobilized and global society, and that allowed the virus to spread quickly throughout the world.

Statistics and Sadness

The truth is that we have been here before, even though we have forgotten. Is it perhaps more normal than we think?

On Wednesday afternoon, April 2, the number of confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19 surpassed one million. The number of deaths related to this new virus stood at not quite 51,500. Nine days later, at about noon in my time zone on Saturday, April 11, the statistics were horrifically different: 1,724,736 cases confirmed globally, and 104,938 deaths.

One week later, according to the daily statistics, there were 2,256,844 confirmed cases worldwide, with 154,350 deaths. On April 18, the number of fatalities in the United States was edging toward 33,000. To my horror, this morning, just one day later, the number of deaths has passed 39,000 in this country, with 742,637 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Global deaths now are over 162,000, with 2,355,676 confirmed cases.

Thankfully, the number of new infections seems to be slowing. American hospitals have not been overwhelmed as originally feared, but in other nations, the outlook has been grim. Still, though, it’s necessary to compare the number of deaths with the totals from other 20th-Century pandemics to gain a better perspective.

It’s a terrible thing to feel quite this helpless in a time so filled with scientific knowledge and modern technology, isn’t it? 

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts I have dubbed Corona Chronicles.” The first was Twists of fate, published February 14, 2020, before the spreading viral infection had actually been declared a pandemic, followed by Faraway and the here & now March 23, 2020, and Look for the silver lining on April 17, 2020. There are more to come.