What follows is a thought experiment. I will make something happen in the future in order to think about a very specific issue. And, while I will begin by describing the general circumstances that I have conjured up to make this experiment possible, I know that my readers do not care much for such overviews. They do not greatly serve my purposes either. So, bear with me, and I will move quickly to specific people in specific situations within my imagined world and let you begin to draw your own conclusions as to the broader relevancies. I have faith that you will do this, even if your conclusions are not exactly the same as mine will be. After all, we must both remember that this is an experiment.
And what is it an experiment about? What I am concerned with here is the extent of our ability as human beings to pass on wisdom – wisdom not knowledge – from one generation to another. Do not think too much about this yet. Wait for the demonstration. But before we get to the passage of wisdom from one person to another, we must address the more mundane issue of the passage of microbes from one human being to another, something which made this thought experiment possible. So, suspend your belief as you do when you enter into any story and abandon your prior assumptions as you become the audience for my little laboratory demonstration. But please take it seriously. It is a matter of great importance. For you see, it is my last chance to pass on wisdom. So it is at once the thing itself and an experiment to see if the thing itself is of any value. Only you can judge.
I can only set up the apparatus for you and let you make your own observations and formulate your own theories.
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. – Little Gidding (I)
After the shortage of flu vaccine in 2004, the government made every effort to expand production; for several years things went well. In fact, the panic over flu shots in 2004 increased the number of people who lined up for shots on a regular basis, and the availability of vaccine permitted the government to encourage more groups to get inoculated. Even perfectly healthy young adults were being pushed by their employers, parents, partners, and government to get vaccinated. One result was that within five years there were minimal outbreaks of influenza in the United States. Of course, the strains of flu continually mutated, but the scientists followed in their wake, adapting their sera to the fluctuations of the microbes they chased. For many years, the scientists were able to keep pace, but in the fall of 2021, the enemy started to gain an advantage and continued to mutate late into the fall season. The scientists were eventually able to adapt the serum, but there was no time to prepare sufficient vaccine for the full population before that winter season. Again, as in 2004, the government limited the provision of the vaccine to the elderly, the chronically ill, and some healthcare providers. These people lined up in clinics and senior centers to get their injections, while the rest of the population once again heard lectures on hand washing and staying out of work if they did get the flu.
As it turned out, the strain that had mutated late in the season arrived full blown from the Orient into the City of Angels one hazy morning in mid-November, and was not caught early enough to prevent it from being propelled by the massive movements of Americans during the weekend before Thanksgiving. The A strain H-34 mutation was more infectious and more fatal than anyone could have predicted. People not only began to sicken, people began to die. The grocery stores were full of people in surgical masks or with handkerchiefs tied around their faces stocking up with food, kleenex, juice and whatever they could lay their hands on. By the Monday morning before the holiday, thousands of people were dead or dying, and municipal governments closed schools and offices in vain attempts to stem the pandemic. College students were told to stay where they were to prevent the spread of the influenza. On Monday afternoon, the federal government shut down all transportation systems and ordered everyone to stay at home. By Tuesday morning, hospitals had stopped admitting patients. And during all of this, everyone who sickened died, and many of them died very rapidly indeed. None of the neuraminidase or M2 inhibitors were effective and, in any case, supplies were soon gone. Temporary morgues were set up in most towns; communities which had not yet seen the flu break out put armed men on the routes into town. It was too late, however. The disease quickly reached all fifty states, and it appeared that there were to be no sanctuaries. Nevertheless, the uninfected from the devastated areas continued to get in their cars and try to find safe havens; in almost all instances they carried their death with them and spread devastation wherever they went. For reasons that were almost impossible to reconstruct, people who had dead at home fled their houses and gathered at shopping malls. Obviously, this spread the contagion and turned the malls into multistory crypts full of the dead and dying.
There is no way to give an overview of the horror of the next few weeks, of the whole advent season; the stories that follow of specific people in specific place perhaps come closer to the terror of it. Dante knew that horror is only horror when we see the fear through the eyes of one victim at a time; hell holds no terror as a boiling pit of nameless souls. But, of course, this is the story of the survivors. The horrible deaths of the multitude of victims can only be imagined.
In the North, the ground was frozen and families were not able to bury their loved ones as they died; they wrapped them in blankets and left them in the snow. The last victims died in their houses and apartments, and no one came to look for them. By the winter solstice, there seemed to almost no unvaccinated adults alive. Early reports (before transmissions stopped) from Asia, Europe, and South America made clear that the catastrophe was world-wide. In other times, the influenza had been seasonal by hemisphere, but the virulence of this strain had even seemed to overcome the weather. In the third world countries, where even the elderly were not immunized, it was probably safe to assume that there was almost no one left. To make matters worse, in New England there was an early ice storm in some areas. When power lines went down, no one came to make repairs – although this did not really matter, as all the power and communications went out within a few weeks. It became apparent that even systems that required little human intervention required at least periodic encouragement and oversight from their creators.
Civilization and technology were falling apart, but science had left one last success. The vaccine had worked. Nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, assisted living homes, subsidized housing for the elderly – all of these institutions were full of living souls. There was, however, little staff. While much of the medical staff had been vaccinated, they were dealing with ill family, friends, neighbors – and grief. Medical supplies were scarce and many of the fragile and those dependent on pharmaceutical or technical interventions succumbed. Even many elderly people who had lived on their own began to gather at nursing homes and other centers where they could talk to other living beings.
The elderly were used to being apart from everyone else; many of them also had a close acquaintance with death. The tragedy did not affect them as overwhelmingly or as emotionally as it did their younger caregivers. And, in most cases, even dying relatives did not contact them; elderly parents and grandparents could not know whether the faces in those photos on the dresser still breathed. Two things did impact the old ones, however: the arrival of the babies and the power outages.
Apart from the vaccinated and an occasional naturally immune person (almost always someone of Scandinavian ethnicity), the only group that seemed not to be mortally affected was very young babies. Infants up to about six months maintained some level of immunity. Unlike the vaccinated, they often did get a mild version of the flu; however, they usually recovered. Many died of dehydration and starvation in homes where there was no one to care for them, but many others were gathered together in shopping malls, churches, and police stations where they were delivered by their sick and desperate parents. These sites, however, were largely morgues at this point, and not appropriate nurseries. The babies needed rescuing. Surviving medical personnel tried to help, but many of them had lost families, spouses, children, patients. They were traumatized by their own personal situation and what they were seeing around them. One might have expected these younger adults to take charge, but this was almost never the case.
Nevertheless, some of them worked with the elderly to start moving the babies into the hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, where there were other elderly survivors to help care for them. Beds with guard rails that had been used for the frail, now served to prevent up to a half dozen infants from falling onto the linoleum floors. Luckily, old folks also used diapers, soft foods, and fortified liquids, so these things were at least temporarily available. Soon, delegations of the vigorous were sent to local Wal-Marts, grocery stores, hospitals – anywhere they could stock up on what was needed.
At first, some of the elderly tried to ignore the babies. This could not last long. There were not enough healthy medical personnel to take care of the demanding babes, and the babes were noisy. Even without their hearing aids, the elderly could not sleep with the screaming of the ever wet and hungry hordes all around them. Interestingly enough, it was the minority of male inhabitants that first began to take ownership of some of the babies. For the men, it just seemed like a practical matter; someone needed to save the babies and stop the noise. The women, having been mothers and grandmothers, were sometimes a little slower to step into something they realized it was easier to get into than out of. They had lived long enough to see their children and grandchildren ignore them in their old age; they were not eager to be taken advantage of. But that did not last long; soon the women were out of bed too. And even the very weak, who could not get out of bed, became custodians at night and at nap time of babies who needed their warmth and the sound of their breathing.
In some nursing homes and almost all of the assisted living centers and retirement communities, retired engineers, carpenters, and crafty women figured out ways to create heat in fireplaces and wood stoves expropriated from area houses or local stores. The able-bodied installed the stoves quickly and often haphazardly; firewood could be acquired by simply commandeering abandoned vehicles and pulling up to the houses where cords of wood were stacked. When it was clear that the power would not be back, they began to move in groups to housing that was easier to heat with wood, older homes with multiple fireplaces or houses with woodstoves. Still, it was chill and the very frail often did not survive. Anyone who had complex medical needs or was dependent on electronic equipment did not endure long enough to make the move.
Of course, there were also elderly people who had had the vaccine who were living outside of institutions – in houses, condominiums, on farms. In general, they were a little younger and in better health than their cohorts in assisted living centers and nursing homes, but they did not have the support of a large group and were often face to face with the death and devastation in a way that the more protected cohort was not. They coped in their own way, trying to find ways to keep warm and fed, and dealing with the ethical issues of orphaned babies and unburied bodies. On the outside, as in the institutions, the elderly did better than the younger adults who survived. They were used to thinking about death and being separated from their families. Maybe it was the absurdity of it all. They were retired and redundant and were expecting to be the next dead bodies; now they were surrounded by the corpses of the young. Or maybe they had used up their tears on other things. They knew it was horrible, the worst thing they had ever experienced. But they were neither traumatized nor incapacitated. They were sad and concerned. And most of them just set about figuring out what to do next.
One of the very interesting things was how civilized things were on the streets. Even with dead bodies everywhere, even with no power, no government, and no law enforcement, there was also no sense of violent desperation. Part of this was certainly due to the fact that there were so few people left that there was plenty of food to go around. Not only were there huge stores to plunder, but there were acres of subdivisions of empty houses with pantries full of canned and dry goods. And, of course, almost all of the people that were left were old. Hormone levels were low. No one moved very fast. The elderly had gotten out of the competitive habit. So far, no one saw this as a Darwinian situation between members of the same species. Rather, the old people perceived it as a competition against the very nature of things. And, again, everyone was just trying to figure out what to do next.