“Yellow Terror” arrived in the mail out of the blue. I opened to the first page and I’m sure my face turned pale as I read, “Poor Shreveport! Woe-stricken Memphis! How afflicted, how lamentable you are… Friends, dearly beloved have been laid low, and the very air is ripe with lamentation.” Those words were written in an 1873 opinion column by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. The language sounds old-fashioned, but as noted by the booklet’s writer, American Jewish Archives director Gary Zola, they are echoed today.
Infectious diseases have haunted us historically, and I take their misery and devastation personally. When I first came to America from Bermuda as a young girl, I came down with chicken pox, measles, German measles, pneumonia, and scarlet fever all in my first year here. Antibiotics saved me and I’ll be forever thankful to the scientists who invented medications and vaccines. But I’ll never underestimate the power of transmissible diseases.
Maybe studying epidemics should be a required topic in history classes. Maybe seeing even a partial list of these diseases would prompt more COVID action: smallpox, yellow fever, typhoid ever, scarlet fever, Spanish flu, diphtheria, polio, measles, whooping cough, AIDS, Sars, and Ebola. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
But fear might not influence those who insist on looking the other way, as many do. The downside to our amazing scientific advances is a pervasive sense of being as invulnerable as Superman. How else could former President Trump get away with eliminating the pandemic committee that Obama created? Surely epidemics and pandemics are either a thing of the past or science fiction. Or worse, COVID-19 is a partisan hoax, the number of infected is inflated, and the fatality numbers are out-and-out lies.
Unfortunately, we have fallen prey to the common desire to ignore, deny, forget and move on. And the result has been a fatal disunity with testing, treatment, and vaccinating. This phenomenon isn’t new. Rabbi Wise wrote about the epidemic, “…Why did not the medical facilities of the country take this matter in hard and present to the Congress united action to this important subject?”
These days “united action” sounds like gallows humor. Division and denial are the new normal even when they lead down dangerous paths. When lawmakers bypass metal detectors, refuse to wear masks, and reject COVID tests, they’ve made preparation and mitigation into partisan acts. They allow conspiracy theories to flourish. We’re in a civic mess that’s not going away anytime soon.
We all want to get back to normal lives. But quick fixes shouldn’t replace long term plans. As Rabbi Wise said, “When the evil has come upon the community the cry of horror and helplessness resounds: once passed it dies out of man’s memory. While it rages, the men of charity are hard at work; when it leaves, the dead are buried, the survivors mourn, and everybody goes to his business.”
What to do? We need to be better prepared for the next pandemic which history demonstrates is inevitable. We need a federal task force representing medical facilities across the country to plan for healthcare now and in the future. Economic planning should address the broad inequities that COVID has magnified. Otherwise, we could descend into a feudal state resembling medieval times. Our educators should develop the diverse medical staff, organization executives, technical experts and civic leaders able to handle monumental change. And we must all become a nation of futurists, intent on seeing the consequences of history and designing an America never seen before.