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IDEAS

The coronavirus epidemic, like those before it, will alter the course of history in ways we can’t imagine

The author’s great-grandmother, who died during the Spanish Flu of 1918.
The author’s great-grandmother, who died during the Spanish Flu of 1918.Sarah Parcak (custom credit)/Courtesy of Sarah Parcak

I am an unforeseen outcome of a global pandemic.

As an archaeologist, I know that events we can’t control shape the future in ways we can’t imagine, for better and for worse, such as volcanoes erupting, like Vesuvius at Pompeii, or the Little Ice Age that led to the collapse of the Viking settlement in Greenland in the 15th century. Cholera, plague, malaria, and other disease outbreaks ravaged ancient populations, often quickly, and radically altered the course of human history. The outcome of the current epidemic will be no different.

As we are increasingly being asked to stay at home and distance ourselves from each other, altering the way we live our lives, I am reminded of a story of a husband and wife from Boston during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918, which infected one third of the world’s population and killed 675,000 Americans.

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The husband, named Harry, worked as an insurance salesman, and the wife, Gertrude, as a teacher. The couple had settled into a very comfortable middle-class life in a nice home and had two daughters. Gertrude was 8 months pregnant with her son when Harry came down with the Spanish Flu. Her family begged Gertrude to stay away from the hospital for the sake of her children. They told her it was a miracle that she had not yet contracted the flu from Harry.

I cannot imagine what went through Gertrude’s mind as she left her two girls in the care of relatives and went to the hospital to see Harry. She caught the flu so she could die by his side (she gave early birth to her son during her illness; he did not survive). The two young girls, age 4 and 1, were shared between relatives who all fought over the inheritance and sold the nice house and all the nice things inside. Ruth ended up in a decent home with her father’s family, while Helen was shunted from relative’s house to relative’s house, facing horrid abuse and mistreatment.

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But Helen never gave up. She studied hard, graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, while taking secretarial classes — sadly, the only option for brilliant and poor women then. Helen got a job as a secretary at a construction business in Connecticut and like so many women in the 1940s, starting writing to servicemen during World War II. A dashing Lieutenant in the Army named Harold got one of her letters, and, instantly smitten, wrote her back, and, soon after, came to visit to propose. In 1946, my mother, Marjorie, was born.

The headlines about coronavirus now appearing in newspapers have caused me to excavate the recesses of my family’s pandemic history. I have photos of Gertrude and Harry, my great-grandparents, on my mantle — my own archaeological reliquaries. Like figures from an Egyptian tomb their heads are turned to the side, with the tiniest hints of smiles in the corners of their mouths. I look at Gertrude’s black-and-white photo with a mix of awe and guilt — awe because she looks like my early 20th century twin; guilt, because I am here at 41, and she was gone at 26.

Without her early death, I would not exist. My grandmother might have grown up happy and cherished in Boston, with endless suitors at whatever university she could have attended as the daughter from an educated middle-class family. “Why did you do what you did Gertrude?” I have often asked the photo. She stares back, surprised I still do not understand.

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Now, we stand at our own precipice of ambiguity in the face of a global pandemic more than 100 years later. Epidemiologists can try to predict a likely number of cases across the world, but there will only be certainty around the pandemic’s total effects once it’s over.

My archaeological expertise can’t predict the future, but it does give me a perspective on the past that could be helpful in this moment: Human resilience in the face of impossible odds is astounding and should give us no small measure of hope.

I’ve held enough ancient pottery fragments and sifted through enough dirt to tell you that history is shaped equally by the events of a global nature and the simple quiet choices we make every day. The message of my great-grandparents’ story is identical to the message that thousands of distinct ancient cultures show with their archaeological remains: We lived, and we loved, for as long as we could. Long may we love, knowing there will be, no matter what, unforeseen outcomes for our children, and for the descendants we cannot imagine.

Sarah Parcak is the author of “Archaeology From Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.