World Enough and Time: Got COVID on my mind

Bill Hagen
Contributing writer


Do we have one? Three vaccines announced as over 90% effective will supposedly be available for some of us—health staff, responders, the aged (me)—by sometime in April.  Noticed that President Trump was upset because it was announced after Election Day, saying it was part of a “deep state” plot to defeat him, or something like that.  Whatever, it was certainly an instance of the kind of international cooperation that this administration has disdained.  From all I’ve read, German researchers who did most of the work on the Pfizer vaccine.  

Throughout the whole trade war and isolationist talk, most corporations have continued to rely on their international agreements and production sites.  No, they are not going to re-locate factories from Asian and African locations, where labor and supplies are cheaper.  And their shareholders agree with that profit-driven logic.  Capitalism is international.

Anyway, I hope the vaccines really work and are accepted by Americans who have grown skeptical of previously promised cures.  You know, of course, that Oklahoma, Utah and probably other Republican-led states now have huge supplies of the quinine cure boosted by the president.  We are ready for any malaria outbreak.

Camp Funston, Kansas--the source of the “Spanish Flu”?


Speaking of cures, I’ve been interested in reading about treatments offered during the much more deadly Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. You could be dead within 24 hours.  Often, you drowned from lung fluids, tending to turn your skin blue or black.

No antibiotics, of course.  So folks did the best they could, treating the fever, trying to prevent the bronchial pneumonia.  Doctors prescribed aspirin and tried concocted mixes, though a vaccine was not developed until 1938.

Home remedies prevailed for most.  In fact, overdosing on aspirin, it’s thought, probably contributed to some fatalities.  Then there were the mixes that included turpentine, coal oil, kerosine and mercury, also not helpful.

According to Donis Casey, in one of her “Alafair” mystery series set in Boynton, Oklahoma, common farm remedies included lots of ginger tea, garlic, chicken soup, plus rice or milk toast for those recovering.  Most interesting was the onion poultice applied to the body. Casey included a story she heard which featured thinly sliced onions put in socks worn by the patient.  The claim was that they drew the fever out, evidenced by the blackened onions, “baked” by the fever.  The novel is “The Return of Raven Mocker.”  

Formaldehyde was a favorite disinfectant at the time. So much was used in Oklahoma County’s jails that folks could recognize recently released inmates by their smell.  An article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma (Spring, 2001) indicates whiskey was the most popular remedy for individuals. Oklahoma was a prohibition state, but pharmacists could dispense the spirit for medicinal purposes.

The article provides more interesting information on the 1918 flu.  (Assuming you’re still interested?). First, we know it was called the Spanish Flu, simply because Spain, as a noncombatant in World War I, published uncensored accounts.  But, and this is a big “But,” the first documented human case occurred in March of 1918 at “Camp Funston, near Fort Riley, Kansas” (Chronicles, 38).  From there, it seems, it was sent overseas with the ships bringing American troops to the Western Front.  The troop ships often lost quite a few young men to the flu on the way, most buried at sea.

It’s thought that migratory ducks or geese brought the flu to pigs in the Midwest, where it underwent a genetic shift, creating a swine flu that could be transferred to humans.  Once in Europe, it mutated to a more deadly form, then brought back to the U.S. with returning troops.

Hampering prevention efforts of health authorities was the drive to raise money to support American efforts in the war.  The favorite way to raise “Liberty Loans” to meet a city’s goal, was to have large scale events, parades and speeches.  A huge parade in Philadelphia, for instance, is credited with giving that city the highest death rate per capita in the U.S.  (Bartlesville was second.)

Also hampering efforts to control was the mood of folks after the war ended in the Fall of 1918.  They wanted to celebrate; they lost some of their commitment to a unified effort to win on both fronts.  So there was a second wave of deaths.


As we confront new records in this state and nationally, that should sound familiar.  Can we resist the impulse to gather together for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s?  Can we keep the kids in the house or close to home?

And let’s note: it’s estimated about half of those who are infected show no symptoms!  Because we are programmed to seek testing when we have troublesome symptoms, these folks may never know they are carriers.  They become the super-spreaders of the virus.

Stories emerge: a grandmother giving a ride to a coughing friend brings COVID into the family, causing the death of a relative.  An Oklahoma woman writes Abby about being dropped  by friends after she may have exposed them. A family reunion in Texas leads to widespread infection.  Large unmasked gatherings in the Bronx, New Jersey, Nashville result in citations.

Stories generate worries: I distance myself for eight days from a friend who attended a family Thanksgiving.  I worry because a friend with health problems feels compelled to attend a family gathering in another state.  I visit an office where no one wears a mask.  I want to support local restaurants, but cold weather means I have to eat inside, which health authorities recommend against.  At a local shop, the clerk is maskless, but a fan blows toward him, supposedly diverting droplets away from me.

Surely, I am becoming too aware, maybe paranoid, less trusting in a world where kindness can spread infection.  A sign at the Colorado community center, famous for its puns: “COVID spreads for two reasons: population density and population density.”  Reminding us that there are those who worry and try to care and those who don’t give a damn.   

New hearing aids don’t help my anxieties.  I jump every time the ice maker drops a cube.  In my wood-frame home, I now hear the creaks and cracks as the house adjusts to changes in temperature.  I think the next room is trying to talk to me.


I am reminded that during the seasons of the Black Death in the Middle Ages, there was a sort of grim humor in the “Dance of Death” representations, showing people doing all sorts of things, with a skeleton shadow doing the same thing.  Something of this humor shows in the “Days of the Dead” celebrations in Mexico and elsewhere.  From Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal,” we learn that Death liked to play chess and occasionally cheated to win.

Is humor still possible in our situation?  Imagine the Thank You letters that might have been written after recent events.

Dear Mr. President,

I want to thank you for inviting me to your Christmas party in the White House.  It was thrilling to meet you and your family face-to-face.  Your smile as you welcomed me uplifted my spirits.  Just to breathe the same air as so many great people!  It is a memory I will treasure until the day I die.


Dear Mildred,

I appreciate your giving me a ride to the emergency room when I had that coughing fit.  I feel fine now.  Please convey my very best to your family.  I would do it myself, except for this stupid quarantine.



What a great party!  And what a great idea, to rent a house so that we could all drink, talk, and dance while the storm raged outside!  The whole experience left me breathless!  In fact, I am still breathless.



It was certainly a pleasure to meet such a red-blooded American at the President’s rally in Valdosta the other day.  I really appreciate your inviting a bunch of us for beers in your basement afterwards.  I feel a bit wobbly today, but the hangover will pass. Or maybe I will pass.  Ha! Ha!


Mr. Giuliani,

I want to thank you for spending so much time with me and my fellow Republicans in Michigan.  Your arguments were certainly compelling. We agree that the legislature should overturn the results of the voters in the presidential race, even though those same voters re-elected many of us.  Unfortunately, the legislature cannot meet; we are in quarantine after meeting with you.  

Just as I’m getting into the grim spirit of these letters, my granddaughter calls on FaceTime to read me some of her favorite poems:  one is “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor”; another is “Ickle, Pickle, Tickle.”

I feel better.  It’s a wonderful life, after all.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at