New York State, with just under 20 million people, has more cases of COVID-19 than any country in the world. On Easter Sunday alone, 671 New Yorkers died from the disease. This has been the most painful Holy Week of our lives.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event in the history of humankind and is also the reason for our hope. Jesus’ resurrection gives meaning to our lives.
But we find ourselves facing daunting challenges this Easter season. Fear and despair are common. The hope and joy that has filled our lives during past Easter seasons is hard to come by this year. We wonder how this nightmare will end, how many of our relatives, friends and people around the world are going to die before a vaccine is produced or the virus mutates into less lethal strains.
We think with horror about the financial consequences of the pandemic. By Good Friday, three weeks into the quarantine, 16 million Americans had lost their jobs.
We wonder if our way of life is going to be destroyed by COVID-19 along with who knows how many lives. What will the world of tomorrow look like, the world in which we are going to live after the pandemic recedes?
The Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed 675,000 Americans — and 50 million people worldwide. That pandemic started at the end of World War I, a conflict where 20 million people (mostly Europeans) died. The United States lost 116,708 citizens in that conflict.
It is remarkable how little people talked about the Spanish Influenza pandemic before we were confronted with the COVID-19 one. When did people begin forgetting about the last pandemic? Did they learn their lesson and move on, or did they just forget about it?
In America, WWI and the Spanish Influenza pandemic were followed by the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age. People remember the twenties now as a time of good music, loose morals, and financial irresponsibility. In literature produced by the authors who lived through it — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others — the pandemic is surprisingly absent.
“Among those Americans who let the pandemic slip their minds,” historian Alfred W. Crosby wrote, “were many members of that group of supposedly hypersensitive young people who were to create some of the greatest masterpieces of American literature, i.e. the ‘lost generation’ for so many of whom World War I, the other great killer of the era, was the central experience of their lives.”
The same can be observed in Europe. Austrian biographer and novelist Stefan Zweig titled his autobiography “The World of Yesterday.” His main goal was to explain to his readers how different the world of yesterday — Europe before WWI — was from the post-war world.
He started writing the book in 1934, when he had to leave Austria due to the growing danger of Nazism, and delivered it to his publisher in 1942, the day before he committed suicide. Incredibly, the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 is not mentioned in the book.
You would hope that the pandemic was forgotten because life retook its normal course after it was over. Are we going to be able to forget COVID-19 in a few years? Are our lives going to go back to normal soon enough to erase the memories of this horrible spring? Are we going to learn the lesson this time?
We don’t know, of course. We don’t know if people who now are praying more than ever will become more religious after this. Having been unable t participate in Mass for a long time, are we going to be thirsty for the Word of God, or are some people going to stop participating in Mass altogether?
Having lost our jobs, a good part of our savings, are we going to concentrate on the things that matter, are we going to become more materialistic or are we going to emphasize spiritual values? Is the way we relate to others going to be changed forever? Having gone through this together, are we going to be more or less sympathetic to the suffering of others?
At the end of this season in hell, are we going to think more seriously about getting to heaven?