Our National Amnesia
A few days ago, CNN correspondent Sara Sidner broke down on air.
“To see the way that these families have to live after this, and the heartache that goes so far and so wide, it's really hard to take,” said Sidner, who’s been in and out of hospitals covering the pandemic, and face-to-face with families who’ve lost loved ones to the virus. "It's not OK what we're doing to each other. ... [N]o family should be going through this."
News coverage about the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been constant. In contrast, one of the legacies of the 1918 flu pandemic is how quickly it was erased from the national consciousness.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why. While the 1918 flu killed millions worldwide, these deaths occurred during the late stages of World War I. “With the Kaiser’s armies in full retreat and new peace rumors every day, who could pay attention to anything else?” wrote Alfred Crosby in “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918.”
Social media and the 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist. And brutal diseases were a fact of life, with typhoid, yellow fever and cholera among the illnesses exacting tolls on the population. “[L]ethal pandemics were not as unexpected and therefore not as impressive in 1918 as they would be today,” Crosby wrote. As a result, perhaps, flu research was “uncoordinated and underfinanced and feeble.”
I look forward to a return to normal as much as anyone, but I hope we don’t develop a similar national amnesia when it comes to Covid-19 — not if the lessons learned can make us stronger.
“It’s important when you’re getting out of a crisis to make sure that you’re not setting yourself up for something worse down the road,” author Michele Wucker told me when I spoke to her last April. She coined the term “gray rhino” — also the title of her 2016 book — to identify the obvious risks we tend to neglect.
It’s tough to focus on the future when so much is coming at us, from the pandemic to today’s political strife. But what’s past is prologue.
“People I've been talking to about the crisis have been asking a very powerful question,” Wucker told me. “‘How do we use this crisis to not just go back to normal, but to create a better normal?’”
• Emily McCormick, vice president of research at Bank Director