Once the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic finally came to an end—after killing somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide—Americans did their best to forget about it. Later tragedies such as AIDS and 9/11 figured prominently in much American fiction, but influenza was seemingly forgotten by American writers: Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and William Maxwell’s novella, “They Came Like Swallows,” are rare exceptions. Historians and journalists writing about the 1918 flu have hypothesized that the pain and suffering inflicted by the flu paled by comparison with that attributable to World War I, which came to an end at the same time, even though ten times more Americans died of the flu than died in combat. Or perhaps Americans were so optimistic about scientific medicine, which was just coming into its own in the twentieth century, that they chose to ignore medicine’s great failure, its inability to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure influenza. Maybe Americans simply repressed this traumatic episode that killed people in the prime of life, leaving families without a means of support and children without a mother or father. Will the Covid-19 pandemic similarly be forgotten, or will it have a profound and enduring effect on us as individuals and on us as a society?
The pundits are already speculating about the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on the real estate market and on the work place, on professional conferences and the movie industry. But what I would like to address is the life lessons we should take away from this devastating and unexpected year. The first is that our lives are tenuous. We in the developed world have come to expect a long healthy life, especially if we are white and middle class. Life expectancy at birth in the US is just under 79 years; if you make it to age 65, you can expect to live another 20 years. Covid-19 showed us that we should not take those years for granted: while 80 percent of the Covid deaths have been in people aged 65 or older, that means that 20 percent have been in people under 65. As of the end of December, 2020, 346,000 Americans had died from the disease, which translates to 69,000 younger people. There’s nothing like awareness of our own mortality to concentrate the mind and encourage us to live life well and to the fullest. This is the first lesson and the one we are perhaps most likely to forget.
The second lesson is that what matters most to us as human beings is our relationships with other people. That’s what made “social distancing” so painful; it’s why eliminating family visits to nursing homes was so devastating; it’s why Zoom, FaceTime, and other video chat programs have been such a lifesaver. We need to cultivate our friendships, to nourish them, to work to improve them. The pandemic made us believe that other people are the enemy, which runs counter to our essence as social creatures.
The third lesson that I want to emphasize is of a different sort: it is that to make decisions about most anything important and certainly to make medical decisions, we need to understand something about risk. How to behave during the epidemic was all about how to evaluate risk, how to think about risk. Just because most people who don’t wear masks and who go to group gatherings won’t get sick doesn’t mean that these are safe activities. It means that you markedly increase the chance that you will contract the virus if you go around without a mask or attend a group meeting. And understanding risk is more complicated still: how much you increase your risk depends on how widespread the virus is in the surrounding community. If very few people in the vicinity of where you live are sick, then your likelihood of getting the disease is low, even if you fail to take precautions. But as the virus begins to circulate more widely, then precisely the same behavior pattern that was only slightly unsafe before will become far more dangerous.
Understanding risk is tricky because the epidemiological measures designed to protect individuals, whether wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, or getting vaccinated, are not perfectly effective. Some people who wear a mask will nonetheless contract the virus; ditto for people who stay six feet away from others. Individuals who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccination in the clinical trials were one-twentieth as likely to get sick as those who received a placebo. But that means that just how safe you can feel if you are vaccinated (even if the effectiveness holds up in a much larger population than was tested in the trials) also depends on how widespread the virus is: while vaccination lowers your relative risk of getting sick, if the number of infectious people in the community suddenly increases, say by a factor of ten, your chance of getting the disease also goes up by a factor of ten, even if you've been vaccinated. Grasping the concept of risk is essential—not just to dealing with an infectious disease, but also to deciding whether to undergo screening for prostate cancer, whether to take medication for borderline high blood pressure, and whether to invest in the stock market.
Americans, along with people across most of the globe, have lost much from our encounter with the corona virus. We have also gained something: an appreciation for life’s fragility, a recognition of the importance of relationships, and a deeper understanding of risk. It is up to us to remember, both those we have lost and what we have learned.