Imagine a pandemic lockdown with no TV, no smartphone, and no Facebook

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By Greg B. Macabenta

My wife and I have been attending Holy Mass on our laptop for more than two months now because of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Both of us being in our 80s, our children have advised us to avoid unnecessarily going out of the house.

The fantastic advantage is that we have had the rare opportunity to hear Mass celebrated by Pope Francis himself at the Vatican, as well as by bishops in cathedrals around the US. Of course, we have not had the privilege of receiving Holy Communion, and we miss the dynamic homilies of our young pastor at St. Joseph Church in Pinole, Fr. Geoffrey Baraan. We also miss fellow parishioners who have become close friends.

The social distancing and other pandemic-related mandates given by the US government have not really been as strict as they are in the Philippines. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are allowed to go out,  provided we wear face masks and avoid crowds. In fact, we do more than that. We also wear gloves, in addition to the face masks. These are all discarded as soon as we get back into the safety of our homes.

We have shopped for groceries a couple of times (against the advice of our children) and have noted the strict rules imposed by the supermarkets. All the shopping carts are regularly disinfected and shoppers have to fall in line outside the store, while staffers allow batches to enter, as soon as an equivalent number clears the checkout counters.

The rule is, no mask, no entry. Shoppers have to keep six feet apart at the meat and fish counters and move away and around others as they make the rounds of the store. That reminded me of my early trips to the US where we discreetly crossed the street to avoid walking past tough-looking groups on one side of the road. We were particularly wary in downtown Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. If you think Tondo is scary, try these cities.

In truth, for those who have the means, the COVID-19 lockdown isn’t all that inconvenient – that is, compared to the restrictions during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. It was much, much worse then.

Imagine a pandemic with no TV, no smart phone, no Facebook, no Facetime, no Zoom, and no Netflix. Well, that was how it was during the period, January 1918 to December 1920, from the earliest occurence of the deadly flu to the time the pandemic subsided. Almost three years!

TV was only introduced in the US in 1928. And while the telephone was already in common use in the early 1900s, it was not until 1992 that the closest thing to a smart phone – IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator – was introduced. And it woudn’t be until 2007 that Apple would launch the i-phone. Thus, no smart phone for emails, texting, viber messaging or for social media interaction.

While personal one-on-one teaching by parents is probably umatched (assuming parents are educated and knowledgeable), today’s Zoom application has made home-learning for kids possible while schools are closed, and Facetime has allowed families to bond at any time.

We all know what Facebook has enabled people to do, whether or not there is a pandemic – except that now, we are seeing more dishes and old photographs being displayed on social media, along with commentaries on Presidents Trump and Duterte and on every subject under the sun.

Some folks will probably point out that not having to listen to Trump or Duterte was one of the advantages of being home-bound at the height of the Spanish flu, but then today’s COVID-19 refugees can always shut down the TV and cherry-pick things to view or read online.

Indeed, one had few options at the time of the Spanish flu, nor was there a running report on infections and mortality. In fact, because World War I was being fought at the time, censorship had been imposed in Europe, except in Spain which had declared neutrality. Because Spanish media freely reported on the pandemic, the world press began to refer to it as the Spanish flu, even though it had first been detected in a military camp in Kansas in the US.

It was not until 1940 that a vaccine was developed and marketed. Meanwhile, the same non-pharmaceutical interventions mandated in the COVID-19 crisis were decreed by authorities to limit the spread of the Spanish flu.

One US newspaper reported: “Schools, theaters, churches and dance halls in cities across the country were closed. Kansas City banned weddings and funerals if more than 20 people were to be in attendance. New York mandated staggered shifts at factories to reduce rush hour commuter traffic. Seattle’s mayor ordered his constituents to wear face masks…”

Some of my friends in Manila have become stir-crazy from being cooped up in their homes. They complain that the travel restrictions are a “Duterte-style martial law.”

Others describe their “confinement” at home as “marital law” – with their wives as prison wardens. Serves them right. The lifestyle in Manila is not conducive to domestication. Husbands use every little excuse – client meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc. – to justify going to their favorite watering holes after office hours. Not surprisingly, some wives and chldren decide that they also deserve to have their own “good time.”

No wonder, drug abuse and marital problems are common in Manila. Years ago, the problem with drug use among the young became so bad that parents of exclusive schools set up a group called, Parents Organization of the Philippines. Because the chairman of our ad agency, Tony de Joya, was designated to head the group, he asked me to create an anti-drug abuse ad campaign for the organization.

My first ad created quite a stir among the parents. It showed a teenager with a drug pusher giving him a stick of grass. The headline read: “Is a pusher paying more attention to your child than you are?”

Today’s COVID-19 lockdown appears to have resulted in an unintended benefit: parents being kept at home and, inevitably, paying more attention to their children.

While the number of infections and the mortality rate worldwide have been alarming – at 4.7 million and 310,000, respectively (so far) – these numbers are really modest compared to the death toll of the Spanish flu. That pandemic is said to have claimed some 50 million lives (due to lack of sophisticated monitoring and reporting systems at the time, the estimates have ranged widely from 20 million to 100 millions deaths).

Note that the world population was 1.6 billion in 1900 and 2 billion in 1920. We could, thus, assume around 1.8 billion in 1918.  Even if we  use the low mortality estimate of  20 million, that is still a much higher percentage of the population compared to the curent COVID-19 worldwide death rate of 298,000 (out of a 7.8 billion world population).

And here’s something that I hope Donald Trump does not brag about: the COVID-19 death rate in the US, estimated at 86,000 as of this writing, is relatively small, based on the US population of 328 million. The US death toll claimed by the 1918 pandemic was 675,000 out of a US population at the time of 103 million. I also hope  that Duterte does not brag that the current Philippine mortality rate of less than 100 is a very small percentage of a population of more than 100 million.

Of course, for people of compassion, one man’s death is one death too many – especially if the victim is a loved one or a friend.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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