Mark Bennett: Like aftermath of 1918, world wars, 9/11, a new normal may be ahead

Courtesy Indiana Historical Society: Martin CollectionPlan B: Nurses stand ready at a makeshift hospital set up in Terre Haute during the global influenza pandemic of 1918.

Maybe that day will come in fall.

Back-to-school sales. Friends gathered at a pub to draft players for their NFL fantasy leagues. Handshakes and hugs at churches on Sundays. Retirees debating the news over coffee in diners. College football games. Office workers sharing doughnuts on Friday mornings. Teachers helping a struggling student solve a math problem at the kid’s desk.

It sounds blissful right now, because it sounds normal.

March 2020 hardly seems normal.

A “novel” coronavirus, COVID-19, has prompted states to shut down businesses and entities where people congregate for jobs, leisure and most “nonessential” activities. Events that have occurred uninterrupted for decades — from sports championships to elections — have been canceled or postponed. Schools and colleges are closed. Employees cope with unexpected layoffs. Toilet paper is hoarded.

“Sheltering in place” and “social distancing” keep us mostly home.

This circumstance is rare. Major pandemics — diseases that spread worldwide — through the 20th and 21st centuries involved influenza in 1918, 1957-58, 1968 and 2009, as well as a different coronavirus (SARS) in 2002. COVID-19’s “novel” status means it’s a coronavirus not previously identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thus, no vaccine exists, yet. Shutdowns and isolation tactics are ways to mitigate spread of the coronavirus that had infected more than 240,000 people worldwide as of Friday. More than 10,000 have died.

Once the pandemic ends, is it realistic to think that Hauteans, Hoosiers, Americans and earthlings will pick up right where we left off?

Ideally, lessons learned from the experience will change lifestyles for the better. Everyone hopes the precautions imposed will have limited the spread and impact of the virus, and health care will improve as a result. Idled workers and businesses, and shell-shocked investors may return to a staggered but wiser U.S. economy. Schools and colleges may become more technologically flexible because of the disruption forcing kids to continue their studies with e-learning digital devices.

Again, ideally.

History provides some perspective on how “normal” can evolve.

World War II altered life in America and beyond. With more than 15 million men serving in the U.S. military during the war from 1941 to ‘45, more than six million women filled previously male-dominated factory jobs, according to History.com. That wasn’t normal. But it gradually became the new normal after the war.

“The fact that women could do those jobs started pressure for women to move into different occupations than the ones they had previously been confined to, out of cultural customs,” said Tom Steiger, professor of sociology at Indiana State University.

Today, women comprise 46.9% of the nation’s workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last week, another aspect of World War II — rationing of goods — popped into the mind of Susan Tingley, executive director of the Vigo County Historical Museum. Tingley thought about the legacy of wartime rationing while she observed the people in long lines at the stores this month, buying items they feared would run out. By contrast, rationing forced Americans to use limited amounts of commodities like sugar, coffee, meats, cheese, milk, gasoline, tires, shoes, metal and paper. People planted “Victory Gardens” to feed their families, according to the National World War II Museum archives.

“That period lasted for over three years, and most people who lived through it were much more frugal for the rest of their lives,” Tingley said. “While today we are not experiencing government-imposed rationing, the panic buying has resulted in some of us having to go without certain items. Will we come out on the other side of this pandemic with a better appreciation of how to make due with less?”

Tingley also pointed to an episode during World War I that seems relevant now. The “Spanish flu” pandemic in 1918, the war’s final year, infected nearly one-third of the world’s population and claimed 50 million lives, including 675,000 in the U.S. Afterward, many European countries adopted national health care systems, while the U.S. developed employer-based health care, Tingley explained.

“We’ll learn from this [COVID-19] pandemic, as well,” she said. “The question is not if our health care system in the U.S. will change after the coronavirus, but how.”

Attacks by terrorist hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, altered the sense of security in the U.S. A total of 2.7 million Americans have served in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since then. Airline travel involves layers of inspections for travelers. Immigration laws continue to be debated in Washington.

Americans dealt with fear in the wake of 9/11. Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials at the time pondered whether to carry on with the first U.S. Formula One race at the famed track, just days after the attacks. “We went ahead, believing that we weren’t going to let fear prevail,” recalled Terre Haute resident Fred Nation, who served as IMS executive vice president in 2001.

“[The COVID-19 pandemic], of course, is different, an unseen enemy,” Nation said.

Today, Nation works as interim director of Swope Art Museum in downtown Terre Haute. Concerns over spread of the virus led the Swope to close last week, but Nation hopes it can open soon. By nature, a museum such as the Swope enables visitors to maintain recommended “social distancing” of six feet from others. Some time in the future, COVID-19 and the need for social distancing will have passed.

“This pandemic is a traumatic event, and uncertainty about a return wave will make it difficult for some people to want to be in public spaces, just as a different kind of fear kept people home after 9/11,” Nation said.

Likewise, the Wabash Valley economic engine will “take some time to restart,” said Robert Guell, economics professor at ISU.

People with deep savings and robust credit “will have opportunities when the health crisis is behind us,” Guell said. “The challenge is that these characteristics don’t describe that many people or businesses” in the Wabash Valley.

Laid-off workers could deplete their savings before employers hire them back. The key question is how quickly demand for products and services will return. “The longer we are locked out of our normal economic activities, the longer it will take to restart them,” Guell said.

That restart won’t be instantaneous, he predicted. “We aren’t going to wake up on Memorial Day and go right back to where we were,” Guell said.

Some positives can come from this unique freezing of activity here.

People may rediscover the joys of cooking and eating at home, Steiger, the ISU sociologist said. And, with so many music, sports and theatrical events canceled, folks may find other ways to entertain each other. “People will play their own guitars — and learn to — and sing with family members and friends,” Steiger said. “We will make up new games to play. Personally, I hope we start doing read-alouds.”

Others may occupy their time in a way that addresses Vigo County’s declining population problem.

“All this staying at home, no doubt, is going to lead to an increase in sexual activity,” Steiger said, “and there may be a bit of a baby boom, especially after this ends. So we will get another youth explosion that will have a lasting effect on society, just as the baby boom post-World War II and the millennial generation has today.”

Spirituality could grow. At least, that’s the hope of Dave Butts, chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee and president of Harvest Prayer Ministries in Terre Haute.

“We’re talking a lot about our ‘new normal’ right now. I hope that elements of that new normal will remain — certainly not the illness or the fear, but the slowing of society is much needed,” Butts said. “Staying at home and spending more time with family is a great improvement for our scattered culture.”

Butts sees people praying more, too.

“People who are fearful and confused are turning to God in prayer,” Butts said. “Many are learning to express their concern and compassion for others through prayer. What a tragedy if this is just a blip on a timeline, instead of a transformation of a nation spiritually.”

Introspection will continue during these shelter-in-place weeks or months, and after, said Fred Nation. Primaries have been delayed, but the 2020 election is, for now, still scheduled for Nov. 3. Also, public policies will get scrutiny, too, just like the days, months and years following 9/11.

“Traumatic events cause us to take stock, look at our government and leadership in new ways and force change,” Nation said. “That might be at the polls. It might be in our attitude toward world trade and globalism. It might be toward who we believe. But there will be change.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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