“Since the influenza broke out here there has been quite an epidemic and lots of people are dying,” the letter reads:
There is not so much difference between the death rate in France and right here in this camp. Every few minutes an orderly comes in here with a death report and a couple more go down the street with a soldier who has cashed in and probably his feet will be sticking out. If his case is interesting he is put away with those for post mortem and the next day, we get a number of slides of specimens all over his body.
The author of the letter is my great-grandfather, who was writing his grandfather in October 1918, by some estimates the deadliest month in US history. (My dad, the family archivist, still has that letter — a yellowed page of flowing and faded script.) At the time, my great-grandfather was a soldier in Camp Taylor in Louisville, where he worked at a lab collecting sputum samples from flu-infected soldiers that doctors would analyze. Those grim rounds, as the letter indicates, put him on the front lines of a pandemic that was deadlier than the trench warfare still raging in northern France: the “Spanish flu,” so-called because Spain remained neutral in World War I and, unlike Great Britain or the US, didn’t censor reports of the outbreak.
Coronavirus is devouring the US right now, but the Spanish flu was even more lethal. Close to 500 million people, or about one-third of the world’s population at the time, were infected with the flu, and 20–40 million people may have died from it. (By comparison, COVID-19 deaths worldwide have recently topped one million, with a far larger global population.) The contagion even caused life expectancy in the US in 1918 to drop 12 years, from 51 to 39. All told, deaths from that flu outnumbered all the military and civilian casualties of World War I combined.
In many ways, the medical breakthroughs of the last hundred years have insulated us from the scythes of pain and illness, so it’s jarring to realize that a 21st-century plague is ripping through the US practically uncontained. So much has changed in our national life this year that I felt like I was in a dream-state and also somewhat unsurprised to stand in a CVS store this summer and hear this ad come over the speaker: “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been estimated that 54 million Americans, including 1 in 4 children, will go hungry this year.”
If “hunger” in the US today seems anachronistic, that’s because it essentially has been: That spot I heard was an awareness ad by Feeding America, and their own language on this topic is not about hunger so much as “food insecurity.” Hunger is a complex subject, in part because it’s largely subjective. To measure it, you’d have to take blood and analyze nutrient levels. Plus, life-threatening conditions of malnutrition no longer occur in the US, at least not on par with what people in the Sahel countries of West Africa might still suffer from. Instead, our dietary diseases tend to be overconsumption mixed with underconsumption. Consequently, food insecurity is a more applicable metric in the US, since it calibrates a person’s ability to access food on a reliable basis.
Food insecurity often leads to yo-yo eating, in which someone may skip meals until a paycheck arrives and then binge on cheap, calorie-dense foods in lieu of more nutritious fare. Which leads to the paradox of a country with high rates of obesity where, during 2009, in the pit of the Great Recession, more than 50 million US Americans were food insecure. That level of food insecurity, pre-pandemic, should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the drop in our living standards over the past decade — an odd trend, considering that those standards have risen almost everywhere else across the globe.
Only the US, Brazil, and Hungary are worse off today than when the Social Progress Index was launched nearly ten years ago. Slipping from 19th place (out of 163 countries) in 2011 to 28th in 2020, the US currently ranks in the company of Cyprus, Singapore, and Malta. Our health services are comparable to what people receive in Jordan and Albania. We’re number 100 in the world in discrimination against minorities.
The coronavirus has exacerbated these ills: Around 10 million people in the US reported losing their jobs in the second half of March. By early June, unemployment claims spiked to 40 million. Layoffs soared. Food prices shot up. Two months into the pandemic, one in six adults was food insecure. Perhaps the saddest stories to surface, though, might be the 14 million children who don’t have enough to eat.
In May, photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally set out across the US to chronicle people on the edge of hunger. The photos she took are of families at prayer, neighbors taking meals to their friends, volunteers delivering food to the homeless. But they’re also images of want: Kids cradling bags of donated bread. Kids sitting on crates reaching into bags of Cheetos. Kids eating spaghetti on the floor of a homeless shelter. Among households with children, one in three has reported having insufficient food. According to Lauren Bauer at the Brookings Institution, that is “the highest level in nearly two decades the government has tracked hunger in America.”
Studying the faces of these kids, it’s hard not to feel that our policies have failed them. Back in March, Congress passed legislation that expanded food stamps benefits and broadened nutrition assistance for kids and made cash payments to most households. Since then, though, talks for a new stimulus relief stalled in August, and the chance of a bipartisan deal before the election looks “dim.” Which is just too bad for people waiting in cars lined up bumper-to-bumper en route to food banks. Or workers earning under $14 an hour. Or anyone who has suffered an eviction or a vehicle repossession or the loss of healthcare since March.
From Justinian’s Plague to the Black Death to the Spanish flu, poxes and pestilences have been recurrent features of human existence. But what seems appalling about COVID-19 in the US today is that our response to it has been cavalier and scattershot. A nation that can freeze debt and print money without restraint and produce a relief bill if our lawmakers simply hustle has instead bungled this recovery. Our president admits he downplayed the coronavirus. A Cornell study found that Trump is the single largest driver of misinformation about the pandemic. Trump, along with many others, also rushed to reopen the economy. The result? With just 4% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s coronavirus cases.
One consequence is food insecurity — one of the starkest examples of our lack of investment in our own people.
Now it seems that the liabilities we’ve ignored for generations have come due. For years we saw month-on-month gains in the stock market and assumed everyone must be doing better. We believed there was no need to underwrite affordable housing or healthcare or a higher minimum wage. And now time has found us out.
These days, in the middle of another dark October, I’m inclined to think we have had such a high standard of living that we’ve lost any frame of reference for the great catastrophes of our history, such as the Spanish flu or the Great Depression. And yet the nation feels as if it’s quivering on the edge of mass unrest. So many ingredients for violence are simmering: the pandemic, an election that already feels compromised, the anger of a nation polarized along party lines. These are hallmarks of social decay. Physical and social hungers, persisting too long, lead to chaos, nationalism, democracy dying in daylight.
Witness the circuslike squabbling of the first presidential debate. Trump’s attack style approximates (or shapes) our public discourse. The way he yelled over Biden and Wallace alike gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though the maw of his contempt could swallow everything before him — all the crowds, all the air, all the country itself.
But the pandemic cannot be yelled away. The pandemic serves no agenda. The pandemic simply eats us. We are all its prey, even Trump, and the metrics and forecasts we’ve set for how long it’ll run its course or how many people it’ll kill all turn out to be Pollyannish. Seeing the death toll climb month-on-month, marching upward just like the stock market, it’s also hard not to wonder: Are we even trying to live up to our aspirations for democracy?
Consider just a few of the darker anomalies about the US: We’re the only country to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. We have, by far, the highest prison population rate in the world. And — along with Cuba, Comoros, and Palau — we have signed but never ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UN adopted a half-century ago in the dream of guaranteeing people across the world the rights to housing, clothing, water, and food.
Every administration for the past 50-some years, Democrat and Republican alike, has refused to honor this treaty. Instead, in roughly the same timeframe, we made the decision to set out in the opposite direction: suctioning $2.5 trillion each year from the bottom 90% of workers into the hands of the ultrarich. What else can we conclude, except that our legislators — and the vested interests that often dictate their decisions — regard workaday people as sores on the body politic?
In an earlier post this year, I argued that the coronavirus has laid bare how the US only values people who can already afford to ignore disaster. Now it seems the situation is even worse than that. A plague, one of the nightmares of history, has returned, and we are looking upon ourselves for what we are: A country ravenous for profit, feeding on its own people.
Special thanks to Alisha Wheatley and Nick Otten for insights and concepting and Matthew Zoeller for art direction.