Editor’s note: Alonzo Weston’s “Street Smarts” column now will appear in Thursday’s editions of the St. Joseph News-Press.
Many people before us have experienced the worst of times and survived and thrived. It’s been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Think of the people who lived through the Depression and World War II years. They eventually became known as the “Greatest Generation.”
What will this generation be known as?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic some would say we were a generation defined by greed, self-centeredness and partisan politics.
Will we come out of this time of self-isolation, empty streets and public places and daily fear of news reports the better for it or become something worse?
One of the comforts of history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much worse.
Take the Black Death of 1347, which wiped out half the population of Europe in four years.
Novelist Giovnanni Boccaccio gave a most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature at the time as recounted on the Quillette website.
“Every morning bodies of the dead — husbands, wives, children, servants —were pushed out into the street where they were piled on stretchers, later on carts. They were carried to the nearest church for a quick blessing, then trundled to graveyards outside the city for burial. As the death toll rose, traditional burial practices were abandoned. Deep trenches were dug into which bodies were dumped in layers with a thin covering of soil shoveled on top. No more respect was accorded the dead than would today be shown to dead goats.”
Like COVID-19, the disease spread quickly, but unlike in the modern pandemic, it infected everyone — young and old, rich and poor — not mainly the old and infirm. But unlike the current virus, the effects of bubonic plague were particularly gross and humiliating.
Tumor-like growths as big as apples would appear in the groin or armpit. Gangrenous blotches would appear on hands and feet, causing the skin to turn black and die. The victims would start coughing up blood, all their bodily fluids stank and their breath became putrid.
“The stench of dead bodies, sickness and medicines seemed to fill and pollute the whole atmosphere,” Boccacio wrote. “There was no dying with dignity during the Black Death.”
Quillette author James Hankin wrote that “Everyone ran in panic from the sick. Neighbors shunned neighbors, relatives relatives. Children abandoned elderly parents and priests their flocks. Incredibly, even fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them. Some reacted by locking themselves up with a few friends in some comfortable place stocked with food and fine wines. They would entertain themselves with music and refuse to receive any news of the dead. Others, often those without the means to escape, became fatalistic and began looting the houses of the dead, stuffing themselves with food and drink, heedless of the risks of infection.”
We aren’t there yet, but we still must remain wise and vigilant. No protesting with guns demanding businesses reopen. The closures are for your safety and the safety of others.
Sure, I’d love to eat in a restaurant and go to a movie or a game again. I won’t be able to do any of those things if I’m dead.
Places will open up again but there will be a new normal. We won’t go back to being like it was before. But with wise heads and thoughtful actions, we too can become a great generation afterwards.