Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan.
It’s now clear that, for most of us, the coronavirus epidemic is the worst crisis of our lifetimes – including possibly the Great Depression of the 1930s.
I wasn’t alive back then, but my parents were. And they never forgot it.
Once, I found a box in their crowded attic – my mother was a diligent saver and a careful labeler. “String: Too short to be saved”, read the label. But there it was. Saved.
Like most families, nothing was wasted. Menus for the week were written out over the weekend so supplies could be bought on sale. Leftovers from the previous night’s dinner were recycled into “soup pot soup” for the next meal.
For a time, my parents kept bees and sold the honey as “Pooh Bear Honey.” That is until the book publisher sent them a cease and desist letter.
My mother’s constant questions were: “How much does it cost? Can we afford it?” For years, my father drove an old black Ford Model A, which lacked a starting motor and had to be hand cranked.
When my entrepreneurial father had the bright idea to start a microfilm company, he asked my grandfather for financial help, only to be refused. Tight for cash, my father took a job as a night watchman at the local funeral home, which brought in some money and enabled him to conduct his experiments in a dark room. Eventually his brother, Frank, a doctor, grubstaked him for $500 to help start the company, a tidy sum in those days.
Things were tough everywhere.
My mother’s parents – he was a schoolteacher, she a housewife – lost everything they had when the Guardian National Bank in Detroit failed in 1933, during the “bank holiday” declared by Gov. William Comstock. Eventually, they retired to a little house by the side of the road in Petersburg, a tiny town near Monroe. They lived out of their garden, the chickens in the coop and milk from “Bossy” the cow.
My wife, Kathy, tells stories about her grandparents, the children of Norwegian immigrants, who lived on a little dairy farm near Beloit, Wisconsin. Relatives from Chicago would drive up every week to collect a load of vegetables from the garden to take home and sleep outside in the heat under the trees.
Some experts say the coronavirus recession will likely be long and deep – gross domestic product falling by maybe a quarter this year and unemployment hitting 30 percent.
But pandemics are hardly unique in our recent history. The biggest, of course, was the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920, which killed more than died in World War I, maybe as many as 50 million worldwide. The Hong Kong Flu originated in China in 1968 and was spread worldwide by the newly developed world air travel industry. An estimated 100,000 died in the United States and something like 1 million around the world.
AIDS and HIV have often led to the isolation and marginalization of those sickened. By the end of 2018 together they had cost some 32 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
SARS, which broke out in 2002, made thousands ill, mostly in the Far East. It’s one of a family of coronaviruses, of which COVID 19 is upon us today. Swine Flu, an H1N1 virus, also in the category of COVID19, spread around the world in 2009-2010.
Ebola, another virus, affected in 2013 mostly countries in West Africa and killed 11,300 people. Even though the death rate was high, most Americans felt isolated from its spread, although periodic outbreaks still occur from time to time.
And, of course, the coronavirus outbreak has now spread worldwide, despite persistent (and sometimes limited) efforts to quarantine those taken ill. International travel, trade and just contrary human nature, temporary disbelief, and delay all contribute to its frightening spread.
I’d guess pandemics like this will continue as a part of the human condition, regardless of government lockdown and regulations. “No wall is high enough to keep out the threats to our future, even for the mightiest countries,” says Ian Golden, an Oxford professor.
The old adage – “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it” – might become a byword for our times.