In 1918, a 15-year-old named Violet Harris decided to keep a diary. To prevent the spread of Spanish Flu, all schools, churches, and public venues in Seattle were closed until further notice. Her response to not having to go to school was that of pure joy: “Good idea? I’ll say it is!”
Despite the lockdown, the disease spread. Vi, as her family called her, heard news of her friend Rena when she went to return her umbrella. Rena’s father met Vi and informed her that both Rena’s mother and Rena were sick with the flu.
Eventually, they both recovered. Sometime later, Rena called Vi on the phone. When Vi asked her what it felt like to have the flu, Rena said, “Don’t get it.”
Vi spent many of her days indoors to prevent getting infected – but also, because there was really nowhere to go. Besides recording life in her diary, Vi quietly spent her days on her hobbies.
She read books, she sewed a dress to wear for when school reopened, and she tried her hand at baking. Unfortunately, Vi had to toss out half a batch of fudge because it turned out differently from the newspaper recipe.
After nearly six weeks of waiting, watching, and working on her own projects, the lockdown ended and public life resumed. Vi was excited about visiting the theatre, but less so about going back to school.
She grumbled, writing on November 12, 1918: “The ban was lifted to-day…School opens this week – Thursday! Did you ever? As if they couldn’t have waited till Monday!”
Even though Vi’s experiences are from a different era, they feel incredibly familiar. Her sentiments remind us that, despite how much time has passed and how much has changed, human nature remains much the same.
Pandemics Pave a New Way of Life
Pandemics are disruptive. They take your everyday way of living, including your weekly schedule, your plans, your habits – and turn it all upside down.
When you live life uninterrupted, everything is automatic. You go through familiar routines simply because it’s the path of least resistance. There’s no motivator urging you to do anything different.
You spend your days in the same places, talking to the same people, experiencing neither immediate pain nor discomfort. It becomes easy to let everything remain as is. You don’t think about why things are, simply because you’ve never had a reason to really stop and think about it.
But when everything comes to a grinding halt, you’re forced to stop. Your life gets put on hold. All your old routines, aspirations, and obligations get put into clearer perspective.
In a time of life or death, things become crystal clear. You think about what’s essential. You focus on what matters most.
During times of crises, priorities get reshuffled. Time slows to a drag as every passing day feels like a week. You’re finally given an opportunity to reflect on what you were doing before and whether to shed those behaviors.
The shift is profound and immediate at all levels.
For individuals, the things we believed were important suddenly seem trivial, while the things we took for granted suddenly come to the forefront.
Was that work promotion so crucial after all? Do I actually need to need grab that coffee or run to the store again? Who will be there to help during difficult times? Many find themselves curbing impulsive behavior and figuring out what they need versus want.
Organizations are forced to pivot and work their way around new constraints. As companies cut out face-to-face interactions and move online, the shift to digital processes has accelerated. Safety and hygiene are prioritized over personalized service.
Everyone is navigating through a different world, trying to figure out how to deal with the sudden change.
The Stages of Pandemic Response
Historically, pandemic responses follow these five stages: denial, anxiety, adjustment, reevaluation, and new normal.
When people first hear news of an epidemic, they brush it off. They read the news and hear stories, but figure that it’s nothing big and will soon go away. This attitude is especially prevalent if the outbreak happens someplace far across the globe.
But it doesn’t go away, which leads to anxiety. As infections increase, people begin to accept that the pandemic is real. People are faced with the uncertainty of something they never planned for, and they frantically try to decide how to best respond.
In the midst of the crisis, people start adjusting their habits to new constraints, including lockdowns and rules. This stage is interesting because people start to reflect on their life before the pandemic compared to how it is in the present. They’re discarding many of their old habits and building new ones.
Feeling bored and isolated, many turn toward creative pursuits, such as baking. They might journal to relieve stress and document their daily lives during an unusual time. No matter how someone’s life is impacted, each person is finding their own way to mend, reflect, and manage.
As the crisis subsides, people reevaluate how they responded and what to do moving forward. Which habits should be kept? And which ones discarded?
Most people look forward to going outside, dining at restaurants, and visiting public places. But they also realize there were a lot of things in their old lives that they didn’t need, such as luxury goods.
The final stage then, is the new normal. People inch their way back into regular life, returning to the activities they did before. And yet, there are some things that weren’t there beforehand.
People may be more used to washing their hands regularly. Many find they enjoy the flexibility of working remotely. Organizations decide to keep many of the safety and hygiene standards in place during the crisis.
Things may resume as they did, but it’s inevitable that the pandemic will have left its mark.
In the Midst of Tragedy, There is the Opportunity to Learn
The 1918 flu took an estimated 50 million lives, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Its global impact forced countries to reevaluate the healthcare they offered their citizens.
In the years afterward, governments began setting up socialized medicine to give the public greater access to healthcare. Countries saw the importance of coordinating public health on a global scale.
In the midst of great tragedies lies hardship and suffering. But there is also the opportunity to learn.
You learn more about yourself, your values, and lessons moving forward. You shrug off the old burdens holding you back and start fresh with a modified worldview.
You will come out changed in the end. Like seeing an old picture, you will one day look back and realize how far you have progressed.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks – You may have watched the movie, but the book goes a lot deeper than that. Through a collection of personal accounts, the novel looks at how different countries responded to the zombie pandemic and how humanity was nearly pushed to the brink of extinction.