I’m tempted to buy a book on the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic. I’ve been tempted to buy this (as yet unknown) book for some time now.
Because of my interest in history, I know how pandemics end. Slowly and with great unevenness. I truly did not expect the U.S.’s emergence from the pandemic to be this swift. Even though I know some parts of the country (with large numbers of people who are refusing to be vaccinated) will continue to have surges, hospitalizations, and unnecessary deaths, for most of us in the U.S., we’re going about the business of rebuilding our lives.
It’s not easy. As I’ve said in the past, it’s not as simple as returning to “before.” So many of us from before are no longer here, and so very much has changed that my mind spins when I try to contemplate it.
I’m doing what I always do with a big event: I’m looking to history. But I’m doing so with my hands over my face, and I’m peering through my fingers.
Which is why I haven’t even researched that unnamed book yet. I’m not even sure it exists.
What I want is not a recounting of how people died over 100 years ago, but a look at what changed. I know, for instance, that the 1918 pandemic led to a major change in the laws for building ventilation. Someone who was actually paying attention realized that buildings whose windows did not open had a higher number of fatalities than buildings that actually had air circulation.
So building codes were altered, particularly for hospitals and schools, providing better ventilation—something, by the way, that many builders forgot about 70 years on, and so we’re having to relearn that lesson.
It is but one lesson, though, and I want to know what the others are.
I’m trying to peer into the future.
I know changes will come, fast and probably unrecognizable from the point of view of 2019, but I don’t know what they’ll be.
I’ve always thought of this pandemic as a world war, something we’re all fighting as if we were invaded by a tiny alien race bent on our destruction. Well, we have weapons to defeat those tiny aliens now (and who knew that some people would refuse to use the weapons), and so we’re moving forward—but each city, region, and country at its own pace.
As I write this, many countries in the world are still stuck in COVID hell, because they’re experiencing surges and they have low vaccination rates or no vaccines at all. The inequities are startling.
It feels weird to me to be reentering the world, doing things without masks, signing up for concerts and plays and seeing friends and not thinking each and every moment about avoiding infection. I’m aware that I’m lucky and it’s a true luxury.
When I read about World War II, and the impact on various nations, the authors were always careful to let us know about the destruction and how hard it was to rebuild and recover. It felt odd to me, as an American whose parents and grandparents lived in communities that suffered no ill effects of the war, that other countries and communities had to rebuild from scratch.
I still remember one of my high school teachers telling us of his summer in London and how they had to evacuate his hotel because road crews discovered a live bomb as they dug up the street. He had other problems because of his German last name and his very Germanic appearance, this being the 1970s and the war only thirty years in the past.
My science fiction brain, developing even then, thought that was cool, and I decided to use those things in my work.
I saw it too among my friends, many of whom were children of Holocaust survivors. One friend’s father had lost his entire family in the war. He had climbed over the Alps to escape but his wife and children hadn’t made it through the brutal conditions. He remarried and had a second family.
I saw him often but never exchanged a word with him because he was so grim and forbidding, something I understand now. How terrified he must have been for his second family? How many things had he dealt with? I’ll never know.
He was part of a group of survivors who made Northern Wisconsin their home. I grew up in a world where tattoos were hideous things that people (survivors of the camps) kept covered.
All this means, in shorthand, was I saw evidence of the damage the war had done, and as a privileged child, had not understood it at all.
I’m only just beginning to understand it now, which, I must say, as an sf writer, irritates me. I want to go back and touch everything I’ve ever written that deals with disasters on a grand scale, showing how some places recover quickly (burying their scars) and others might take decades to get over this.
There’s a difference between learning something and knowing something on a deep gut level. And that’s where I have come to, in the past few months, maybe even in the past year.
I look at the faces of my friends as we get together for the first time in 14 months, and I see something that I know they see in mine as well— a guardedness, a sense of change, and in many of us, aging. The year took a huge toll, even if we were among the lucky ones.
We all know we will never be the same. But we’re not sure yet how we’re different.
I guess no book will help me find out. Just moving into the future, one step at a time, will do that.
I want a map. And, sadly, I know I’m not going to get one.