Stories: Who We Have Lost

Reflections on Pandemic Revisionism

Who did you lose to Covid 19? My Father

Pandemic Revisionism and Social Forgetting: Reflections and Intersections, January 26, 2024

Blind Willie Johnson’s lyrics, in quotes, to ‘Jesus is Coming Soon’, a 1920’s blues piece he wrote about the 1918 flu pandemic: (Thank you Dr. Nancy Bristow for inspiring me to look this up)

“Well, we done told you, God’s done warned you
Jesus coming soon
We done told you, God’s done warned you
Jesus coming soon”

“In the year of 19 and 18, God sent a mighty disease
It killed many a-thousand, on land and on the seas.”

“Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere
It was an epidemic, it floated through the air”

Why wasn’t the 1918 pandemic part of my education?

“The doctors they got troubled and they didn’t know what to do
They gathered themselves together, they called it the Spanish flu…”

“Soldiers died on the battlefield, died in the camps too
Well, the captain said to the lieutenant, “I don’t know what to do.”

My grandfather was a decorated veteran of WWI. My grandmother was a pharmacist and physical therapist during the same era. Her suffragist activism and his war heroism represent the focus of American attention in the history books, not the hundreds of thousands of American pandemic flu losses, including the large numbers of soldiers whose flu deaths were not recorded with this as the primary cause.

Just over a hundred years later, their son, my father, died of Covid-19.

My first loss happened while the Covid-19 death count was still in the tens of thousands, early, not yet to the hundreds of thousands and continuing to well beyond a million American loved ones dead, each and every one precious the way my father was precious. How can we forget this many people? Yet, look at 1918.

Did anyone in my family suffer this flu? No one talked about it and I never knew to ask.

“Well, God is warning the nation, He’s a’warning them every way
To turn away from the evil and seek the Lord and pray”

Well, the nobles said to the people, “You better close your public schools.”
“Until the events of death has ended, you better close your churches too.”

“Read the Book of Zachariah, Bible plainly say
Thousands of people, they did die, on account of their wicked ways”

This new era of Covid-19 social forgetting is now personal, given my own losses to the viciousness of the virus and subsequent political responses to it, also vicious. Thanks to attitudes of American individualism, many of us suffer disenfranchised and complicated grief around loss without good-bye, missed stories not told at funerals that couldn’t happen, and new discernment about what is safe space to grieve.

Is the lack of historical education and awareness of 1918 doomed to repeat itself with the Covid pandemic? When I hear about projects like Rituals in the Making and WhoWeLost, which provide opportunities to tell our stories or otherwise express ourselves artistically, I am hopeful. I am thankful for the dedicated work of those who keep us informed on the public health issues and historical perspectives, through blogs like Dr. Katelyn Jetelina’s Your Local Epidemiologist, and Dr. Nancy Bristow’s historical research into the 1918 pandemic. With new perspective, I find a certain irony in the Covid myth, “Covid-19 really was like the flu”. Yep, in so many ways not meant by those who make this statement today. Big change begins with awareness, opportunity, and baby steps.

Shelley Chambers

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