Coronavirus is like war but without the fun parts.
The outbreak brings death, suffering, and economic ruin. But a battle against disease fought in hospitals doesn’t offer any morale builders to get people whipped up for the fight. No sharp uniforms, no flags flying, no parade of tanks, no propaganda posters, no newsreels of victories overseas.
There’s no fife and drum corps tapping out “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” no brass band booming out the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and no battalion of dancing girls on stage with George M. Cohan tap dancing to “Over There.”
Forgive me if this sounds flip, but I hope you’ll cut me some slack.
On March 16, my father, Richard Curren became one of the first people confirmed to die of COVID-19 in the state of Florida. That was newsworthy enough to get covered on local TV news as well as on CNN and in the Washington Post.
I appreciate how thoughtful writers and TV reporters asked about my dad as a way to put a face on the dry statistics of casualties.
Talking to news media outlets was strangely healing for me. Reporters’ questions helped me remember things about my dad. How he started out as a budding magician after college. How he loved dogs and toddlers. How he gave everyone in our family goofy nicknames.
Recalling how excited my dad was to help the older residents of the senior facility he and my mom had just moved into, I realized that he was a hero in his own sphere.
After these news stories came out, hundreds of people contacted me to express their sympathy, especially in the small Virginia city where I serve in local government. I will never forget the unexpected outpouring of kindness from people I knew well or barely at all.
But perhaps the most cheering thing in the last two weeks came today, when I read a speech that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered to a contingent of National Guard troops gathered at a temporary hospital on March 27.
“You are living a moment in history,” Cuomo told the troops. “This is going to be one of those moments they’re going to write and they’re going to talk about for generations.”
Cuomo’s speech has been rightly praised for its heroic tone.
His words were especially cheering to me. They made me think that my dad’s death might have some meaning. That perhaps my dad wasn’t just an unlucky 77-year-old in an assisted living facility in South Florida who happened to get a deadly infection.
Cuomo’s phrases made me think instead that my dad was a front-line fighter in a battle for the future of humanity and the nations of the earth, one of the first American casualties in a world war.
Wars Make Us Heroes but Pandemics Make Us Patients
The New York governor’s words inspired me to pull out a collection of books I scored for $10 at a rural antique store just before everything closed down earlier in March. It was the American Heritage Chronicle of the Great Wars, a boxed set of four hardcover books, one beautifully illustrated volume each covering the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I and World War II.
I’m a big American history buff. I got that from my dad. And like him, I’ve also always loved stories of America’s great wars of the past.
Aren’t wars how our country marks its history?
Without wars, American history would just be a run-on paragraph with no punctuation, a boring line of bland forgettable presidents like Millard Fillmore or Calvin Coolidge. But wars give us iconic leaders like Washington, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR.
My pacifist friends might not agree. Isn’t this the kind of warmongering that’s one of our country’s biggest failings? We should not celebrate war. After all, war is meant to kill people. Our task today is to save lives.
I’m a lover of peace myself. I opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It always concerns me when a president deploys our country’s overwhelming military might not in the noble cause of protecting our freedom but in the shameful con of protecting the assets of oil companies and pliant dictators around the world.
Even so, and though I never served in the military myself, I can’t help but sympathize with the men and women of our armed forces for their dedication and willingness to sacrifice.
As a student of American history, I also can’t overlook the power of stories about wars, at least wars we consider to be good ones, to motivate Americans to take action.
What about pandemics? I’m sure there’s no American Heritage boxed set of the Great Virus Outbreaks. Is there a coffee table book of Legionnaire’s Disease or AIDS or SARS?
About the closest you get to any history commemorating Disease War is a few documentaries about the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920. According to one of these, American Experience: Influenza 1918 from PBS, the outbreak definitely wasn’t “Spanish” but probably started in Kansas. The main message was that America could only focus on one crisis at a time — World War I — and that we didn’t have the attention span to worry much about a flu outbreak at that same time.
So, the authorities failed to take much action in the early stages, and let people in big cities continue to congregate together at bars, at events, at workplaces. This led to a bunch of needless suffering and death. These days, that all sounds familiar.
The other point of this documentary was how quickly Americans wanted to forget the influenza outbreak once it was over. It was the deadliest epidemic in history, infecting more than a third of the people on earth at the time and killing up to 50 million people worldwide. With 675,000 deaths in the U.S., influenza killed nearly as many Americans the Civil War did.
Yet, the 1918 pandemic occupies only a small part Americans’ story about our past.
Everybody wants to remember wars. Nobody wants to remember virus outbreaks.
When it comes to remembering wars, I don’t think it’s only about whether your side won or lost. Of course Americans like to remember the wars we won, and it’s taken a special effort by the Boomers who fought in, and protested, the Vietnam War to keep the rest of us from forgetting that big loss. On the other side, some of my neighbors in Virginia and other southern states talk about the Civil War as if it happened last month. And that’s exactly because they lost.
As horrible as wars are, win or lose, we like to talk about them because wars have heroes and villains and stories of devastation and triumph.
Virus outbreaks just have victims.
That makes us feel helpless and scared, like all we can do is cower in the corner at home, wearing our pajamas, hoping the Angel of Death will pass over our place and leave us unharmed.
Americans are all going to have to make wartime levels of sacrifice in one way or another. More of us will sicken. Some of us will die. And all of us will have to stay home, suffering varying levels of poverty, loneliness, boredom and fear. And nobody knows exactly how long that will last. Weeks? Months? Years?
If nothing else, a post-outbreak depression could take years to dig our economy out of.
We’re going to need a better story to motivate us to do what it takes to get through the worst and then recover.
Fortunately, Governor Cuomo is helping tell the kind of story that we need. That’s why his words cheered me so much.
Stirring Words from a Valiant Leader
Cuomo’s gallant speech was straight out of Shakespeare, channeling the St. Crispin’s Day speech of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Cuomo told the troops that fighting the coronavirus is a turning point in American history, the kind of moment that “forges character, forges people, changes people.”
He then predicted that ten years from now the troops will tell their children and grandchildren about the faces of those who died. “And you’ll shed a tear and you should because it will be sad. But, you will also be proud.”
Like any good general, the governor warned the troops to prepare for a hard fight, telling them that this deployment won’t be just a few days but will last “weeks and weeks and weeks.” But he knew the troops would do their duty bravely. Then he told the soldiers that they’re on a mission to save lives but that they must be prepared to fight an especially insidious enemy:
And what’s even more cruel is this enemy doesn’t attack the strongest of us. It attacks the weakest of us. It attacks our most vulnerable which makes it even worse in many ways. Because these are the people that every instinct tells us we’re supposed to protect. These are our parents and our grandparents. These are our aunts, our uncles. These are a relative who was sick and every instinct says protect them. Help them, because they need us. And those are the exact people that this enemy attacks.
This is how you’d expect a wartime leader to talk to an audience of fighters preparing for battle.
I’d go further and say that this is how all our leaders should talk to civilians too. It’s what the media should highlight.
But that’s not much of what’s happening so far. Mostly, we’re just getting stuff that’s either scary (daily death tolls) or contemptible (Trump’s habitual science denial applied to epidemiology).
Having just lost a close family member, the way that our country is talking about the coronavirus war seems like a shame.
My dad lived a full life. He suffered from diabetes and heart disease, making him especially vulnerable. But his health had stabilized over the last few years. Maybe he could have lived another decade? At least it would have been nice for me to have a chance to say goodbye to him. But he disappeared so quickly. It was just a few days from the Friday when he entered the hospital with symptoms of a cold to the following Tuesday morning when my mom got the call that my dad had died during the night.
It it just an illusion to believe that death in a viral outbreak has meaning? That even death in war has meaning?
I don’t know. I was already trying to find ways to channel my shock — I can’t call it mourning yet — into trying to do some good. What I do know is that Governor Cuomo’s words inspired me to do more, and to do it with renewed energy and determination.
At the very least, I’ll spread my dad’s story as a cautionary tale for others to listen to the doctors. We all have a role to play in slowing the spread of the virus and we need to take our own role seriously. I’d also like to use my writing and social media posts to raise the morale of people I encounter. Finally, I’d like to help move forward the conversations about the issues I care most about — climate change and clean energy along with economic resilience and fairness for Americans of all backgrounds — as the new world starts to dawn after the Virus War is done.
We’re All Soldiers Now
I’m sure that Cuomo’s words inspired the National Guard troops who heard his speech first hand to compassionate and energetic action.
National Guard troops deploying as medical workers are clearly in the front lines. So are civilian healthcare workers like doctors and nurses. They deserve our thanks and admiration. Let us send wishes for courage to them and their families.
For the rest of us, the line between civilians and soldiers is blurred in this coronavirus war. Families sheltering in place is not as dramatic as marines landing on Iwo Jima. Fortunately, it’s not as dangerous either. Anybody can do it with the right mindset. And for most of us, staying at home is our role in the current battle.
This is the kind of war where the home front is also the battle front.
Some flag waving may be just what we all need right now to take us beyond feeling stir-crazy stuck at home. Hardly impotent in the face of an invisible invader, we can all be the heroes that we’ve all been waiting for.
As Governor Cuomo said at the end of his speech, “So I say, my friends, that we go out there today and we kick coronavirus’ ass, that’s what I say.”
For the rest of us who aren’t in the National Guard or don’t work at hospitals, we might adapt Cuomo’s call to action: “So I say, my friends, that we stay home today and we kick coronavirus’ ass, that’s what I say.”
Either way, we kick coronavirus’ ass.
Let’s make a mighty army to repel the invader, no matter how invisible he may be. Let’s protect the lives of our loved ones, our friends, and our neighbors. Our job right now is to save as many lives as possible. We must communicate the seriousness of the threat all while keeping morale as high as possible.
Not to sound flip again, but to balance the fear we need to stay safe with the hope we need to go on, good war propaganda will be more important than ever.
After that, walking in the ruins of whatever depression is left after the quarantines are lifted, let’s bury the bad old globalized economy that numbed our souls as it spread disease at the speed of a frequent flyer, all while destroying the climate.
In the new normal after the Virus War we’ll have no choice but to embrace the crazy ideas it will take to come up with a version of America that a new generation will believe is worth living for.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot