Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

Meditations on Kung Flu

I was in a long line at 7:45 am today at the grocery store that opened at 8 seniors only. A young man came from the parking lot and tried to cut in at the front of the line. But an old lady beat him back into the parking lot with her cane.

He returned, and tried to cut in again. But an old man punched him in the gut, then kicked him to the ground and rolled him away.

As he approached the line for the third time, he said: If you don’t let me unlock the door, you’ll never get there….”

Like many, I suppose, I have been following news of the “pandemic” associated with the new influenza strain. Not a lot else to see on the news these days, let alone “social media.”( If it bleeds, it leads — the media mantra enshrined in the last century.) The item above was the first “gallows humor” I found — on a web site for my local grocery store! Which has been well-stocked and functioning through this business.

As an old newspaperman, I have been observing how the electronic media that inherited the Fourth Estate handles this story. Breathlessly would be one term — if not for reports of breathing difficulty in victims. Hysterically? Sometimes the coverage verges on it. Inaccurately? Nothing really leaped out until a reporter quoted, without demur, some alleged medical expert saying the 1918 Spanish Flu only killed 30,000 or so Americans. That was a bridge too far. (The accepted record is around 675,000 fatals.)

Then the venerable New York Times weighed in on April Fool’s Day. It reported the US saw just over 59,000 flu deaths in 2018, significantly higher than the 36,000 that would occur if March’s COVID-19 numbers were repeated all year. Good so far. But followed with a quibble: “However, the coronavirus has not fully hit the majority of states and is more concentrated in a group of metropolitan hot spots across the country….”

Then the reporter played with statistics. (I always subscribed to Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.) New York, the reporter said, had 4,749 deaths as a result of influenza and pneumonia in 2018 (statistics for 2019 not available). The City Department of Health said roughly 2,000 of those deaths happened within the five boroughs. The report went on: “If divided equally over the course of a year, slightly under 400 New Yorkers died each month in 2018 from the flu or pneumonia, around 167 of whom were in the city…” What’s wrong with this picture? “Flu season” is widely accepted to be roughly October-March. Five months, not twelve. Which skews the statistic.

It gets worse. Multiplying New York’s March 2020 kung flu death toll times twelve, he gets a total of 18,000! The figure is flawed and incendiary and takes no account of March typically being the last worst flu month; panic inspiring. Already there is news of New Yorkers fleeing by any means possible, and getting an ugly reception where they end up. No one knows if this flu will relent as most do over the summer. Is this not like shouting Fire! in a crowded theater? (You remember crowded theaters, don’t you?)

Not saying kung flu isn’t serious. The death rate remains to be determined, but that’s immaterial to those who die, and their loved ones. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the new media darling, was quoted as saying“Clearly we know what it can do” based on what’s happened in China, Italy and elsewhere, he said, adding: “It shouldn’t panic us or frighten us,” but we need to address this “very serious problem in a very bold way.”

Opinions appear to vary on whether “we” are bold enough. A lot of the rhetoric has political undertones. I tend to skip past that to read “human-interest stories,” tragedies and the triumphs of ordinary people. And look to history, when the rhetoric gets overheated about how unprecedented this all is. For instance a story from 1918:

On August 27, 1918, two sailors at a pier in Boston were the first in the United States to be stricken by “Spanish flu.” Within a week, 100 sailors daily were falling victim. By September, one person died every nine minutes in Boston. By spring 1919 the Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans in a pandemic that left more than fifty million people dead around the world. (Boston officials closed schools and tried to limit crowded gatherings. The city’s historical archives say: “Their efforts met with some success, but when World War I ended [on Nov. 11, 1918], crowds gathered to celebrate the Armistice…flu increased immediately after the celebration…”)

“The biggest challenge of any pandemic is math, more than science,” said a man who studied 1918. “The exponential nature in which a virus spreads makes it very difficult to contain. Every infected person potentially spreads it to each person with whom they come in contact, and those people each spread it to even more….”

History, as it often does, seems to be repeating itself a hundred and two years later. Science Journal said people who don’t know they have the disease, those who have no symptoms, are “super spreaders,” infecting dozens of people. Just as in 1918, there is no vaccine. Anyone who wonders why borders and businesses are closed, events canceled, and social distancing the new norm, need only look at 1918.

The writer about that pandemic was quoted as saying “the country’s foremost expert in infectious disease…treated the very first Spanish Flu victim at Boston Naval Hospital. He did everything right, but…the virus had spread before he could contain it…” He said by the third week, virtually every hospital in Massachusetts closed its doors. Beds were full, hallways were full, waiting rooms were full. Doctors, in limited supply because of World War I, were dying. So were nurses. There was no one to drive the ambulances…

“In 1918,” the writer went on, “the political pressure came from a desire to keep factories busy…for the war effort. So the government made dangerous statements about how the weather would stop the virus, or how a sure-fire way to stay healthy was to ‘avoid tight shoes.’ This year, time was wasted trying to downplay the threat…again with an eye toward politics rather than public health…A century after the Spanish Flu pandemic killed over 50 million people worldwide,” he added, “our scientific advances have been amazing. But Mother Nature doesn’t care. Tiny microbes can still be more powerful than we are…”

My curiosity piqued, I dug up more statistics. In 1918 there were 10,390 automobile fatalities; in 1919 there were 10,896. With far fewer vehicles. The American “butcher bill” for dough-boys and others killed in World War I: 175,000. Spanish Flu: 675,000, same two years.

More recently, since 2010, CDC reports 12,000–61,000 American deaths per year from the seasonal flu. A number cited by Trump early in this crisis, when he pointed out the toll barely caused a stir, while the rest of the population went about its business.

In 2019 there were 38,000 auto fatalities. Did any of us even notice?

On March 30, the kung flu death toll for this country was 3,175. Next day it was 3,815. No one knows if this flu will slow with summer as most do, or surge when next “flu season” starts October. March is historically the last bad month of a flu season. What happens next is at best a guess. None of which matters if you or yours roll double snake eyes in the crap shoot of life. Whether by speeding car or silent bug, dead is dead.

Meanwhile, across the nation, the human spirit rises to the occasion. Like the humorous grocery store post I opened with. This new electronic age is earning its spurs with at-home concerts from famous stars, peeks into the lives of the rich and famous transmitted from their personal “bunkers;” stories of “ordinary” individuals and various corporations stepping up to support medical personnel on the front line.

A famous musician hosting one of the “virtual” hootenannies remarked on a previous pandemic that ravaged humanity with death and heartbreak, and still lurks out there: HIV/AIDs, generally considered to have peaked 2005–2012, after starting in the Congo in 1976 and rolling into the US in the eighties. Death toll at last estimate, thirty-six million from ’81 to present. Still short of the Spanish Flu, but staggering. The same number again said to be living with the infection. Pretty mind-boggling; but who not directly affected or infected noticed?

Back in 1956–1958, two million died of the “Asian Flu,” 69,000 in the US. I got a Cushman motor scooter, surf-fished and hunted squirrels. No memory of illness or fear of illness. In 1968, “the Hong Kong Flu” tallied a million fatalities. I never even noticed that one. I was too busy getting fired and getting married, then finding a new job, to get sick. Spent a lot of time outdoors hunting ducks in “flu season.” And indoors discovering the bliss of conjugal relations. But I have experienced first-hand other disasters, usually courtesy of Lord Hurrican, as the Caribs who met Columbus called him.

When the power is out and food supplies slow coming in, and all around is devastation from high winds and tidal surge, there is a tendency to believe the whole world is like that. Same when a “hundred-year” flood tops all previous marks and puts your newspaper presses, a mile from the river, underwater. And drowns your newsroom telephone operator, who stubbornly manned her post until taken out by jonboat, which capsized. The dried-up little rewrite man who shared her vigil, and the boatman, could swim. She couldn’t. A hundred miles away, life proceeded as normal while another newspaper, high and dry, printed our editions. It was surreal to be there as final editor before the presses rolled.

Now this: a slow-motion and silent disaster. Wherever you go is surreal. There is an almost palpable fear in the air, even with streets empty and business shut down. Closest in my experience was a polio outbreak in Orlando when it was a sleepy orange-county town, long before Disney. The very air seemed to reek of sickness. They tried to lock the city down, but my family escaped. Does anyone remember those polio terrors before Salk? Or TB terrors, when a restaurant turned out to have a tubercular cook or server? Or typhoid? (I thought of Typhoid Mary when I read of “super-spreaders” of kung flu.)

The world has always been a dangerous place. Pouring gasoline of panic on the fire of fear doesn’t help, or change it. My favorite uncle, dying of leukemia after radiation exposure at his job, said: None of us get out of this life alive anyway. My old grandmother said: the old must die and the young do die. Southern existentialism I suppose.

Henry David Thoreau chose “social distancing” at Walden Pond for no other reason than because he wanted to. He mused that when he came to die, he didn’t want to realize he had not lived. Maybe this imposed pause on frenetic motion can be a good thing: meditation supposedly is good for the soul. Have you lived? Will you, if you get another chance?

As a child I used to imagine, on Sunday when the priest said let us pray now for the whole state of Christ’s church, all the prayers all over the world for everybody else. Yes, I was naive as Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.

But this pause is like an extended Sunday.A day of rest. While pondering how you lived, and if you have lived, what the heck? Who can know the power of millions of souls projecting good thoughts for all the others. If prayer makes you edgy, just address the cosmos.

You got anything better to do? Or place to be?



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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.