Photo: Studio portrait of Edward Kohn

NORWICH RECORD | Summer 2020

The author is a professor of history and dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

Okay, you made your point.

You caught us sleeping, and complacent. Like our cat chasing mirror reflections on the wall, we were easily distracted by the newest shiny thing, like AirPods or the Amazon Echo. “Hey Alexa, how many people in Vermont have died from coronavirus?” “Hey Alexa, where can I buy toilet paper?” “Hey Alexa, tell me how to cure my feeling of profound isolation from humankind?”

We have paid a heavy price in death and disruption: thousands dead, hundreds of thousands sick, and millions without jobs. Our children are home from school, as we all compete for household WiFi. A simple trip to the store is not simple anymore. A dinner out with the family? Nope. A drink with friends? Not going to happen. There is something terribly eerie about watching a line outside a store where everyone wears face masks and stands six feet apart. Will we ever shake hands again? “Social distancing” will go down in history as one of the cruelest oxymorons ever. “Antisocial distancing” is more like it; “lonely and with¬drawn distancing.”

Still, don’t be too proud of yourself. You are still the smaller, weaker sibling of Black Death or the Spanish Flu. You are Arnold Schwarzenegger’s little brother, Meinhard. You are Tito of the Jackson Five. You are Ringo Starr.

In the 14th century the “Black Death” of bubonic plague possibly killed a quarter of the world’s population and half of Europe’s. It took two centuries for the population of Europe to recover. The 1918—20 Spanish Flu pandemic infected a quarter of the world’s population causing as many as 50 million deaths. Malnutrition and poor hygiene caused by the First World War fostered the pandemic, while wartime censorship misled the public as to the flu’s effects. Was the Spanish Flu “Spanish”? No. Because Spain was neutral during WWI, newspapers were free to report on the flu’s effects in that country, making Spain seem uniquely affected. The pandemic was no more “Spanish” than you, Meinhard, are “Chinese.”

Let’s face it, Tito,you are a classic bully. You go after the old and sick, and those with underlying immune or health issues. Is that the best you can do, pick on my parents? Leave them alone. Because the unhealthiest Americans are the weakest members of our society, you have also taken a particularly brutal toll on people of color. Congratulations, really, for preying on the most helpless among us. No one likes a bully; no one admires the tornado for destroying a trailer park.

I won’t deny there have been scary moments. A close colleague of mine just texted me saying her coronavirus test came back negative. My wife had to be tested for coronavirus and self-isolate for one anxious weekend in March, before the test came back blessedly negative. And stories from our students are heartbreaking. Students and their families have fallen ill. Others have returned to find parents furloughed and have been forced to work 12 hours per day at the local Big Box store to support their entire family. Students who came to Norwich for the structure and support, for the Corps and athletics, and for an atmosphere of social learning, now find themselves isolated at home with the end of spring semester looming. We may never be able to measure the profound trauma experienced by our students. My heart aches for them.

So, yes, you have hurt us. But really, Ringo, you have not disrupted Norwich University as much as you think you have. We may be a campus closed, but we are a community engaged. We may be apart, but we are closer than ever. Putting 2,400 students and 400 faculty fully online took us only a week. Virtual check-ins with faculty and staff warm my soul, as we drink our coffee, hold babies on our laps, and shush our barking dogs. How quickly we have adapted! How flexible we have become with each other, and with our students!

And that, COVID-19—you cringing coward, you “Virus the Lesser” among your pandemic cousins—that will be your real legacy. Once we have developed a vaccination to put you in your place, what will we say about you? That you brought Norwich, or Vermont, or the United States, to its knees? No. Instead, we will tell the story of how we came together as a community, and how we emerged from the crisis with a better understanding of ourselves and one another.

And the next pandemic, or the one after that? Norwich University will create the generation of scientists, researchers, political leaders, medical practitioners, and first responders to battle the next inevitable health crisis.

Norwich has your number, C-19. We know who you are and where you live. It’s your turn to be afraid.

A Teddy Roosevelt scholar and the author of numerous books on the 26th U.S. president, Edward Kohn, Ph.D, has appeared on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. He is a graduate of Harvard, Victoria University of Wellington, and McGill.

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