Truth and Consequences

The conversation about COVID-19 — a new strain of coronavirus disease that has quickly spread to 89 countries around the globe — continues to dominate every encounter, even those between strangers at camp. While there is cause for concern, it’s also important to keep the outbreak in perspective. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 675,000 Americans — more than the number of people who died in the Civil War. By some estimates, the Spanish flu claimed the lives of nearly 100 million people worldwide. In fact, during the final months of World War I, more soldiers died of the flu than were killed on the battlefield during four years of fighting.

It was called the Spanish flu. But that was only because Spain, which was not at war, allowed the press to report on it openly. That wasn’t the case in the United States, and that lack of truthful reporting likely contributed to the death toll.

The first serious outbreak here began at Camp Funston (now Fort Riley) in Kansas. As infected soldiers from across the country made their way to the trenches in France, they spread the virus. But the nation didn’t know about it because President Woodrow Wilson had earlier pressed for legislation making it a crime to say or publish anything negative that would affect the war effort. Under the Sedition Act of 1918, he created the Committee on Public Information, with the sole purpose of shaping popular opinion (can you say “propaganda”?). The committee’s first leader, George Creel, famously said, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” Sounds like “fake news” from another era.

In 1918, national public health leaders were saying there was no need to panic because what they were dealing with was just influenza by another name. Can you say, “alternative facts”?

Fast-forward to 2020 and you’ll discover the nation experiencing a similar effort on the part of the federal government to downplay the truth about the outbreak and the potential consequences of a pandemic. Regardless of your political affiliation, you have to admit that the Trump administration has presented mixed messages at best, which are generally unhelpful in a crisis.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the personal impact of the disease. On Saturday, we listened to a commentary by NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon that’s worth sharing in its entirety:

The toll of coronavirus in the U.S. and around the world is being told in the numbers of people who have died, been infected, tested or quarantined — and the economic costs of canceled events, vacations and travel. But there’s another consequence that’s harder to categorize.

At least 10 residents of the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Wash., have died from the virus; more may have died without being tested. Older people, including those with respiratory problems, are considered to be especially vulnerable.

Family members of the residents have told reporters they’ve been given inadequate or inaccurate information about their loved ones inside, even as they say they understand how health care workers in the home must be overworked and anxious, too.

But the hardest part might be that they can’t see in person — can’t touch or hold — the person they love who may be in pain, and scared and confused, as they die alone. It may be like seeing somebody drown, at a distance.

“We are watching from the shore and not being able to do anything,” Alex Stewart, whose 95-year-old grandmother lives in the nursing home, told The New York Times. “It is a very helpless feeling.”

Vanessa Phelps’ 90-year-old mother lives in Life Care, and has breathing difficulties. Her daughter couldn’t even speak to her. She told ABC News: “It’s horrific. My mom being there all alone, it’s just heartbreaking, and it’s unacceptable what they’re doing,”

This may be a problem that causes anguish and outrage but has no immediately apparent solution. If families were permitted inside the home to be with their loved ones, they would likely be exposed to the virus, too, which would risk a vast increase of the number of people who could be infected.

Still it’s hard to know that someone you love is dying, but you cannot give them the only comfort you’d wish: your touch; a few loving words; your presence beside them as a kind of last thanks for all the times that they, as a parent or grandparent, brother or sister, stood beside you during the challenges and passages of life.

I don’t know of any statistic that can account for the number of people this virus may force to die alone. But it is one more burden to carry, not only for those who may die over the next few weeks and months, but their loved ones who must go on.

We were particularly moved by Simon’s depiction of people dying without the loving touch or comforting words that they had given throughout their lives. Jon’s mother, who is in failing health, has often expressed her own fear of dying alone in her little apartment, especially now that Jon and his brother live so far away from her. To this day, Cliff regrets that he wasn’t able to be at his mother’s side as she lay dying, to touch her hand and offer a few loving words.

There are no easy answers. Only the burdens of concern and absence and remorse.