Collateral Damage

The sky above our arbor in the backyard of our home.

For most of us, our world has gotten smaller over the last seven months of the global viral pandemic. Many of us stay home most of the time. We work from home, eat our meals at home, do not see many of our friends or family in person, and are putting off gathering in large crowds for the duration of the COVID pandemic.

Other people refuse to wear masks, question social distancing measures, and protest efforts by public health officials to keep them safe. College students have been reported as attending COVID “parties” where they actively seek to contract the disease from someone who has tested positive. Why? In Texas a college student believed the virus was a hoax, attended a party to prove his point, and ended up contracting the disease. Outcome: this 30-year-old man died from the virus. At the University of Alabama students attended COVID parties that included a pool of money: The first person to get the virus gets the money—along with health consequences that could last a lifetime. Of course, the majority of college students are not so stupid as to play Russian roulette with such a deadly disease–for their own sake, but also because they fear they will bring the virus home to their higher-risk family members: their parents, grandparents, anyone who has asthma or COPD or diabetes or obesity or any disease that weakens the body.

During this time without social engagements, I have had more time to reflect, more time to go outside, to sit in my backyard, look up, and watch the clouds slowly float by. It has been reassuring to note that in the middle of chaos, fear, and fraying of the American social fabric that some things remain the same: The clouds, the old-growth trees in our neighborhood of century-old homes, the love of my family, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

Photo by Kehn Hermano on

Here in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, on Monday night, the Republican-led Knox County Commission voted 8-3 (with two Democrats and one Republican voting against the measure) at the end of a marathon eight-hour meeting (at 2:00 a.m. Tuesday) to diminish the power of the local Board of Health. The eight commissioners were angry that the Board of Health introduced a mask mandate in July in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID. Local media reported that hhe Commission’s resolution has no legal standing to end the mask mandate, but the county sheriff has made it clear his officers will not enforce the rule. The mayor of the city of Knoxville issued an executive order requiring masks in city buildings, and city police are enforcing the mandate when called upon to do so by local businesses.

My husband and I feel confident shopping only in businesses in which wearing masks are mandated. Of course, some customers refuse to wear masks, nonetheless. Our nearby cooperative grocery store, has hired a security guard to ensure all customers wear masks. It is truly a sorry state of affairs when wearing a mask to keep others safe has devolved into a political nightmare of epic proportions.

How serious to take the virus and how to act accordingly has divided our country, state, county, city, and families. I have never lived through a pandemic before, but I had imagined the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was not as politically charged as the reaction to the contagion we are dealing with now a century later.

American hospital train No. 6410 in Allery, France, unloading influenza patients during World War I. Photo: Library of Congress, photo enhanced by rawpixel.

However, I discovered that 1918 was a mid-term election year, in the middle of Woodrow Wilson’s second term. His Democratic Party was fighting to hold control of Congress. President Wilson himself contracted the flu when he negotiated the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.

The first wave of the influenza outbreak occurred in the spring of 1918 at an Army training camp in Kansas. The second wave erupted in September 1918 at an Army and Navy facility near Boston where the disease quickly moved into the Boston civilian population. In October more than 195,000 Americans died of this disease that was heretofore unknown. Rumors and conjecture about what how the disease spread and how it started mixed with the election posturing to make a toxic stew of finger pointing and shifting of blame.

Due to quarantine efforts, candidates could not campaign in typical ways due to the banning of large gatherings. Sharing his frustration with the New York Times, the Democratic candidate for the governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, vented his frustration about what he called a, “Republican quarantine against Democratic speeches.”

Even the name of the outbreak that killed around 14 million people around the globe became political. In the U.S., many people called the disease the Spanish Flu due to a misconception that the disease started in Spain. This mistake was made possible since the countries fighting each other during World War I suppressed coverage of the flu in order not to give their enemies an advantage. Since Spain was neutral during the world war, Spanish authorities reported on the disease more openly which led many people to assume that Spain was responsible for infected the world with this new contagion.

Women wearing surgical masks, Brisbane, Australia, 1919. Photo: State Library of Queensland, digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Although early reporting on the disease came from Spain, most researchers do not think it started there. The Spanish referred to the disease as the French Flu. Scientists to this day do not know for sure where the 1918 influenza originated, but France, China, Britain, and even the United States have been investigated as possibilities.

Deciding who is to blame and announcing a handy foreign scapegoat, has been a feature of past wars, calamities, diseases, and “natural” disasters through history. If the other is outside our borders, psychologically speaking, it is easier for our tribe to rally round, band together, and demonize the enemy.

What do we do, however, when the enemy is within our borders? What do we do when the weakness of our national leader has been the fox in the hen house by not marshalling a national strategy to keep the American people safe: to ensure adequate levels of personal protective equipment for medical staff; to quarantine people in their homes until the levels of outbreak were low enough to open businesses, bars, churches, and schools; to administer a national testing, tracing, and isolation program; by rallying all levels of government and the military to ensure that effective and safe vaccines, when identified, can be distributed widely, safely, and quickly–with front-line medical staff and the most vulnerable receiving the vaccine first. None of these measures have been developed or implemented.

Instead our current president seeks to shift blame on China, where COVID is thought to have started, by calling the contagion the Chinese Flu. Perhaps this naming effort has not been embraced by our country or the world because COVID-19 is a coronavirus instead of a flu; it is much more contagious and deadly than influenza; and it does not stop infecting and spreading in warm weather as influenzas typically do. And, of course, wherever viruses originate, they know no party or country allegiance and attack their victims indiscriminately. We are connected to a global world where a contagion in China can very quickly move around the world, most notably by air travel.

Red Cross Home Service took this photo of a woman stricken with influenza, 1919. Photo: Library of Congress, digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

What does this all this chaos and disorder mean for the most vulnerable in our society: the poor, older people, women, and most of all, our children? Historically children and women have been the collateral damage of war, disease, poverty, and social unrest.

My own father’s life is a case in point. When he was 4 months old, his mother died, according to her death certificate, from insanity caused by pellagra psychosis. Pellagra is an extreme form of nutritional deficiency–from a lack of Vitamin B-3, also called niacin–which causes dementia, diarrhea, and severe dermatis. Between 1900 and 1940, the illness afficted over 3 million people and killed more than 100,000, mostly Americans in the South. This Southern scourge killed 7,000 people at its peak in 1928. No other nutritional deficiency has killed more Americans than pellagra.

We do not know if Daddy’s mother was suffering with pellagra-induced mental illness while she carried him, or whether bringing the pregnancy to term took the last bit of her body’s resources and she succombed to the disease.

South Carolina’s Spartanburg Pellagra Hospital sought to find a cause and cure for pellagra, a disease that afflicted millions of Americans, mostly in the South, between 1900 and 1940. Photo: the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Discover magazine.

According to her death certificate, she died in 1935 the George Maloney Home. Having never heard of such a facility, my husband and I researched archival sources the and found that the George Maloney Home was the Knoxville’s workhouse for the poor. The inmates at the Maloney Home were the poor of the surrounding area who were forced to work in the fields as slave labor. It was not clear exactly how people were consigned to this fate, and it is equally unclear why Daddy’s mother, whose death certificate said she was mentally ill, died in a workhouse while the death certificate lists her husband’s address as a house in South Knoxville.

Daddy on his grandmother's lap, early 1936.
Daddy & his grandmother, 1936.

In the wake of his mother’s death, my father could have been raised by his mother’s Mormon relatives in Kingsport, Tennessee, but his father would not hear of it. Instead Daddy was reared by his domineering grandmother who lived with her two sons: Daddy’s father Hodge and his alcoholic brother. The photo of Daddy’s grandmother (at left, with him on her lap) reveals an austere, intimidating woman. There is something about seeing his tiny sailor hat, sitting at Daddy’s side, which is heartbreaking–as well as the tentative look on his face.

When Daddy was 5 years old, his grandmother died, and he was reared in extreme poverty by his illiterate father, who worked as a butcher at a packing company, and his uncle who may or may not have been a bootlegger.

Children are the loose change in the pockets of the adults around them who often make devastatingly poor decisions.

And heartbreakingly I know many women who were sexually abused as children, many by family members. As for me, an older neighbor boy told me that we were playing “doctor” in our next door neighbor’s basement. I was only 5 years old and had been taught never to make anyone uncomfortable, so I went along and ended up feeling ashamed, hurt, guilty, and profoundly dirty. When we are young and things we do not understand happen to us, we feel it is our fault. I have never lost the shame of that day, but was far luckier than the girls and boys who were abused by a family member or the priest or pastor of their church–which promises another layer of grief and betrayal.

What could I do to make difference? My answer was to rear two sons and teach them that no person—whatever his or her background, color, gender, immigration status, level of poverty, nationality, religion, sex, or sexual orientation—is disposable and worthy of contempt.

Racism and sexism are a form of death–and not just for the people who are denigrated, but also for the soul of the people who allow hate to control their hearts–or for the people who allow hate to define their government.

What can we do now? We can vote for the candidates currently running for election throughout our country who seek to bring us together, heal our social fabric, and enact legislation to protect the American people rather than fomenting more division and hatred. It is quite clear from last night’s debate, exactly which party–the Democratic one–and which leader–Joe Biden–stand for unity, community, and caring for the least, as well as the most powerful, in our sick and broken country.

~ Anna 9/30/2020

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Backyard Nature, Childhood, Courage, Dementia, Family, Home, Ideas, Knoxville, Op/Ed Thoughts, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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