During Pandemic Flu Awareness Week, I have nothing to add to the excellent work of the Flu Wiki. If you aren't already scared silly about bird flu, read the articles there. The question raised by endemic bird flu in Asia is not whether the world will someday experience a lethal pandemic, but when? Will our structures of health care delivery be adequate to care for the sick and limit effects? Will the worst of the toll, both from sickness and social disruption, fall as usual on those already in need?
I have nothing useful to add on those questions. Instead, I thought about who I had known who lived through the pandemic in 1918 and what they conveyed to me. My parents were in that category, but they were children and all they remembered was not being allowed to go out -- practical quarantine by smart parents.
However, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement which is sometimes described as anticipating Vatican II and liberation theology, did sometimes reminisce about the epidemic. What I remember hearing from her was that overwhelmed medical facilities could do little for those who fell ill -- and how hard those lucky enough to stay well worked caring for the sick.
In 1918, Dorothy Day was twenty-one and had already jumped in adulthood with gusto.
Still she felt she was not doing enough to make a better world? What could she do next as the US plunged further into a European war she viewed as an imperialist crime? Day decided she ought to work to alleviate the suffering of the poor. So she signed on to be trained as a nurse at Kings County hospital in Brooklyn just in time to work through the influenza epidemic of 1918. Here's part of her account of this time as she wrote it in From Union Square to Rome, an autobiographical account of her conversion to Catholicism.
In the end, Dorothy Day learned during that year that her calling was not nursing, but writing and advocacy on behalf of the poor. However, the year of disciplined labor during the flu epidemic set the pattern for the rest of her days. She took that lesson and followed it all her life; after her conversion to Catholicism, she imposed on herself a regular rotation of daily mass attendance, prayer, and reading and writing; orderly practice gave her a fundament of calm amid the pressures of leading an often chaotic movement providing refuge for the needy and the downright nutty.