In the fall of 1918, Samuel Maio died in the flu pandemic that was sweeping the world. A recent immigrant from Italy who lived outside of New York City, Samuel left a wife, Josephine, who spoke limited English, and six children. He was 32.
Samuel’s death upended the Maio family and tipped it swiftly into poverty. The church helped a little, and Josephine found a job as a factory seamstress, but her oldest boy started work at age 14, and some of the younger children were briefly sent into foster homes with relatives or strangers. I know, because my mother was one of them.
The stories my mother told about my grandfather’s death were sketchy and second-hand, but there was no denying the scars she carried from the effects of the pandemic — and of the Great Depression that soon hammered the family again. Until her death, almost 80 years later, she continued to worry, sometimes irrationally, about becoming poor.
Today we are just beginning to grasp the dislocations COVID-19 will wreak upon the nation. If a single untimely death like my grandfather’s can derail a family for decades, it’s stunning to think how painfully tens of thousands of COVID-19 fatalities will ripple through society. The anguish of lost jobs, the corrosive worry about falling ill or paying the rent, the deferred medical appointments, the disrupted educations, the social dislocation, the psychological toll of isolation and despair — these echoes of the coronavirus will be with us long after a vaccine is found.
This COVID-19 crisis is like the 1918 flu and the Great Depression combined. It has ripped the veil off the weaknesses in our social supports: the 30 million children who depend on school for their meals, the stark differences in income and housing security, the absurdity of a health care system tied to employers when 57 million Americans work in the gig economy.
And yet national traumas can be formative events. A generation of people who lived through the flu pandemic and the Great Depression forged the idea that we are all responsible for one another’s welfare and helped create a society where risks and rewards, while hardly perfect, were more equally shared. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — not just its programs but its principles — was broadly embraced for the next 50 years.
We need a similar awakening today to help us rebuild — and not just a stronger social safety net but a different economy, one that values those previously invisible workers whom we have now discovered are essential. An economy where someone who shorts stocks isn’t taxed at a lower rate than someone who stocks shelves.
The human impulse toward kindness is in full flower this dark spring. Volunteer sewing societies are springing up to stitch thousands of masks, like the bandage brigades of World War I. Charities like Feed the Frontlines create a benevolent cycle: Donors get to help their favorite restaurants survive; who then keep their chefs and waiters employed; who then cook hot meals for doctors, nurses, and orderlies working on the medical front lines. Even the commitment to stay home and not risk infecting others is a sacrifice made for the common good.
The question is whether these individualized acts of charity can be translated into a broader societal response. Can the imprint of this disaster help us build more compassionate policies as we recover? We can stitch together the safety net more tightly and recreate an economy where fewer people need to use it — but only if we can hold on to the lesson of communal responsibility that this pandemic is teaching.
My grandmother came from a prominent Italian family she left behind when she eloped with Samuel to the United States — a romantic, impetuous act she never could have imagined would turn out so badly. My mother absorbed the message that being poor is not a moral failing but often just the result of bad luck.
Roosevelt’s economic stimulus, a world war, and a propitious marriage eventually lifted my mother’s fortunes — and those of millions like her. But she still saved her pennies like an industrious squirrel, and she instilled in her children a deep sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” And she was a lifelong Democrat.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.