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On the Coronavirus Epidemic

A Seattle streetcar conductor blocks an unmasked pedestrian from boarding during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post

AS THE ONGOING coronavirus epidemic is a fast moving story, there are limits to the extent to which a twice-monthly community newspaper like this one can help. Nonetheless, as a bilingual, bi-cultural paper that reaches many not reached by other media sources, we have to give it a try.

My perspective is that of a grandson of a person who caught the 1918 Spanish flu, and lived to tell the tale. That H1N1 bird flu was the last time a major epidemic hit the world like today.

My Yamaguchi grandmother caught the “Spain kaze” on a family vacation to Japan after international travel resumed at the end of WWI. My grandparents had returned home to introduce their two young daughters, the eldest three years old, to their parents.

The nurse taking care of my deathly ill grandmother died. Months later Baachan managed to recover enough to catch one of the last ships so she could rejoin my grandfather, who had returned to Seattle to work. US immigration was tight in those days. To rejoin him, my grandmother had to leave her children behind. She was deemed too weak to care for them.

Baachan regretted leaving her firstborn with relatives for the rest of her life. While she was able to resume her Seattle life, including giving birth to four later children, she never did get her elder two back. They grew up feeling abandoned, and my Baachan was heartbroken.

Growing up, my mom told me that Yamaguchi Baachan told her, time and again, “Never leave your children…”

Shigejiro Ueno, Seattle, describes living through the Spanish flu in eastern Washington in Kazuo Ito’s “Issei” (1973; English version out of print):

“In the autumn of 1918 Yakima… was paralyzed by an epidemic of ‘Spanish flu’ which was prevalent all over the world. From early in the morning, hearses streamed through the street in a steady line. Finally doctors began to disappear because they knew they would die from the overwork… In these dire straits first our children got sick; and then my wife and I were felled by it. My wife was pregnant at the time, so I worried especially about that. She was in a critical condition, and probably because she coughed so much, suddenly she went into labor. Not knowing what to do, we were at a complete loss. But a woman doctor came and rescued us. The great majority of pregnant women, if they took ‘Spanish flu,’ died, so I was extremely anxious.

“I myself was gasping in a high fever, so sick that I was convinced I would die too. But fortunately a bed became available at the hospital and I was taken there. Until a few moments before, some other patient had been in the same bed. I was stretched out absolutely limp in the bed which still held some of the body heat left over from the person who had died before me. In Japanese families one after another the husband died, which made them all destitute. However, by and by I recovered, my wife delivered safely a perfect, beautiful baby, and the three children left at home all got well.”

I think the main historical lesson is that we need to take epidemics seriously, for they could have long-term consequences for our families. I know that it is boring to pare down our lives to the essential minimum: work—remotely when possible—grocery shopping, and staying home. But at times like now, it is what we need to do.

The emerging lessons from China and Japan are that we all need to act proactively to slow the transmission of the virus from person to person. Kept to a minimal level, our public health system (hospitals, etc.) may be able to handle the added workload.

The Asahi Shimbun (Mar. 2) describes poorly ventilated indoor events as central to the spread of the virus in Japan: “a crowded houseboat… a gym… a buffet-style dinner, a mah-jongg parlor, a ski guest house and an enclosed tent.”

The common denominator among all these are “poor air circulation, people within remain in close contact, and many unspecified people come and go.”

In my own small life, across the weekend of Feb. 29-Mar. 1, my fellow dance-class committee members and I made the at-first controversial decision to suspend the social dance class we have run on Fridays at the Nisei Veterans Hall, begun in 2011, since 2014. While our class is the highlight of the week for many, we also recognize that twenty people holding hands with 20 other practice partners across an evening is no longer defensible. Normally a community service that keeps our Baby Boomer peers active, we have elderly participants we need to look out for. This is especially true because several students also take dance classes at nearby community centers. Others are frequent travelers.

In a similar way, trip leader Elaine Ko has made the difficult call to postpone the spring North American Post tour to Shikoku. All fun in the planning stages, it is not worth continuing the April trip. To do so would place its travelers at unnecessary risk.

Unlike the dance class, such decisions are not easy ones to make. In the case of the NAP travel program, hard-earned dollars are on the line. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that we all need to do what we can to slow the spread of the virus.

Regarding grocery shopping, stores have started running short of items of late. On Mar. 3, I couldn’t find my first choice of rice—brown short-grain—so brought home what I could get: small bags of white short-grain and brown long-grain, which I will mix.

For shopping, I would suggest buying what you think you’ll need to take care of yourself and your family for a few weeks, without hoarding. It is just like preparing for the onset of winter, or for an earthquake.

Stay informed. Read. Be kind. We will get through this, as the Issei before us did in 1918.

I will close with a charming Mar. 3 story from SoraNews24. A young woman in Japan gave half of her four-pack of toilet paper—the last in the store—to a stranger. Single, she offered him more if he has a family, but he too lives alone. The two later arranged to meet for a date.