HIGH ABOVE FLYOVER COUNTRY – Encased in a tube full of masked humans carried on the wings of a Boeing 757 some 35,000 feet above the lights of civilization spread around Alexandria, Minn., it is hard to believe how much more the world has been transformed by humankind in the past 200 years than in the 200,000 before, and how some things haven’t changed at all.
My late grandmother, Alma, and grandfather, Ralph, grew up in the country below in the age of the horse and buggy and lived to the dawn of the Information Age. Along the way, they survived the Spanish flu, the last great global pandemic.
They never talked about it.
The suffering of the flu – it killed about one in every 150 Americans and for a short time knocked life expectancy down by 12 years – was lost in the turmoil of World War I, which came along at the same time; the social-economic chaos of what was to follow in the forms of Prohibition and then the Great Depression; and finally the global nightmare of World War II.
This was their world. Grandpa and grandma were born into lives that were hard but which grew progressively easier over the years though the struggle to survive continued well into the middle of their lives.
They nearly lost their only child, Donna, my mother, to rheumatic fever in the 1930s when that illness was one of many untamed, infectious diseases regularly sweeping across the country.
The fever left her with a weakened heart, a common consequence, which would eventually kill her. Still, she lived to the age of 70, well above average for those born in 1928.
By the time I was born 24 years later, it had risen to 68.6 and by the start of the past decade was approaching 79, but with signs of finally plateauing after a steep and unbelievably steady rise for more than 100 years.
When grandpa Ralph was born in 1904, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 49.6 years. That’s a little more than a decade longer than the country’s now median
age of 38.4.
Most of us now live such easy and comfortable lives that it is easy to lose sight of this history from the near past.
It is equally easy to ignore or forget – especially for urban Americans living largely detached from nature – that death, as much a birth, is what drives the natural world on this planet, and though we might like to think we are now above the natural world, we clearly are not.
The newly evolved SARS-CoV-2 virus is proving a stark reminder.
While we have been fretting about human-caused extinctions of flora and fauna, as well we should, nature has remained busy creating new life forms.
And we have since the spring of 2020 been witness to a demonstration of evolution in real-time.
Not only did a new virus emerge from nowhere, but it has since its arrival been constantly mutating before our eyes. Its exact origin remains undetermined and scientists tampering with known viruses cannot yet be dismissed as a possibility. (Are these the scientists were are now constantly preached to “listen to”?)
But since its first appearance, SARS-CoV-2 has been extremely active in its own evolution.
As of this time, the World Health Organization is reporting three variants of concern – Beta, Gamma and the much-hyped Delta – two variants of interest, nine variants under monitoring, and 25 variants that appear to have “de-escalated,” including Alpha, which was the Delta of the fall of 2020.
The fallout Alpha and its variants have caused in the world’s largest democracy have not been pretty, what with Americans fighting over face coverings, which do little to stop the spread of the disease, and vaccinations, which do much more but are still far from perfect.
Being the comfortably well-off society we are, we want the perfect and the easy. The vaccines were supposed to be it.
“Certainly it’s not going to be a pandemic for a lot longer, because I believe the vaccines are going to turn that around,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s official pandemic guru, proclaimed almost exactly a year ago.
That didn’t happen.
Vermont, the most vaccinated state in the nation, is still in the middle of a surge of cases that started in early August and appeared to peak in mid-October, although the Worldometer’s tracker now shows weekly average case numbers of more than 200 per day, well above Vermont’s spring peak of 190.
But more than half of the people now dying in Vermont also happen to have been vaccinated. There is no magic bullet.
And almost no one wants to talk about, let alone do anything to help move forward, that which might well be most protective against the SARS-CoV-2 and has already shown itself to be protective against many of the other diseases that kill Americans:
Getting people fit and lean, or at least not fat.
Yes, Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, has killed some fully healthy people. Lightning can strike anyone. That’s nature.
But there are also actions that can dramatically increase risks. In these days of SARS-CoV-2, the overweight and most especially the overweight with those chronic diseases now called “co-morbidities” are golfers playing in a thunderstorm.
That’s asking to get struck by lightning.
One might think the leaders of the American health care system would warn them this is not healthy, but the American health care system isn’t really about health; it is about medicine and money.
There is little money to be made by the medical establishment in prescribing exercise, and many of those – maybe most – in need of the prescription don’t want to hear it because it requires some effort, and we have become a society accustomed, and now conditioned, to avoid effort.
We have leaf blowers, so we don’t need to rake the leaves. We have TV remotes so we don’t have to get up from the sofa to change the channel. We have Alexa, or some variation thereof, so we can verbally order the lights on or off without needing to walk across the room to hit a switch.
These conveniences have only added to a fundamental health problem that began decades back.
“…Harsh, early farming conditions were not exactly favorable for promoting obesity…,” science writer Jesse Bering observed in Scientific American a little over a decade ago. “Most scholars believe that morbid obesity was relatively unheard of until we began industrializing the food industry and specialized production became privatized.”
He went on to observe that the “old, previously adaptive fat genotypes that evolved during the Palaeolithic-era materialized into the crippling, plus-sized problem that we have today… (in) such a tiny sliver of time in our species’ evolutionary history that it can hardly be expressed mathematically, but needless to say, it is not enough time for natural selection to counteract what was, for so long before, clearly adaptive. (That’s not to say that natural selection isn’t operating against obesity today.)”
Against the backdrop of today, that last sentence seems positively prophetic.
Natural selection, the driving force in evolution, isn’t limited to the constantly evolving SARS-CoV-2. It is also playing out in who falls victims to the virus.
Almost since the pandemic again, death rates have been linked to co-morbidities – most related to too much body fat and too little exercise. This is especially true, and sadly so, in children.
“The risk of death from SARS-COV2 infection in children from Mexico City is low and is mainly associated with comorbidities,” Mexican researchers wrote in a peer-reviewed study published in Frontiers in Public Health in September. “(But) children with underlying conditions…had a higher risk of Covid-19-associated mortality; relative risk ratio 2.81. Children with obesity had a relative risk ratio of 2.87.”
Obese children used to be a rarity in this country. The Centers for Disease Control reports the rate at 5.2 percent for the period from 1971 to 1`974. It had nearly quadrupled to 19.3 percent by 2017-18.
Even more troubling, however, is the sixfold increase in severe obesity from `1 percent of children at the start of the 1970s to 6.1 percent as the 2010s were drawing to an end.
The rise was especially bad for boys, who shared the 1 percent status with girls in the 1970s, but began to pull away in the new Millenium. The CDC now reports that one in five boys – an alarming 20.5 percent – are obese, and 6.9 percent are severely obese.
I can’t remember knowing any obese kids when in elementary school in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I remember only a couple of overweight classmates from high school. They were what was then considered “chubby” and would now be considered pretty much normal as reflected by the U.S. military’s recruiting problem.
“Inactivity and obesity have also become increasingly burdensome for the US Department of Defense (DoD),” researchers wrote in a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice in 2018. “It is estimated that 27 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old are too overweight to qualify for military service, with obesity being the second highest disqualifying medical condition between 2010 and 2014. Furthermore, upon entering basic training, 47 percent of males and 59 percent of females failed the Army’s entry-level physical fitness test in 2010.”
The study also noted that “a cluster of 10 states from the south and southeastern regions (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) produced male or female recruits who were significantly less fit.”
As of this writing, according to the Worldometers tracker, the five states with highest per capita death rates for Covid-19 are Mississippi, Alabama, New Jersey, Louisiana and New York in that order. And nine of the 10 “less fit” states on that list above are over the national average for Covid deaths. The only one below it is South Carolina.
In a rabidly partisan U.S., some have tried to tie these differing death rates to political party affiliations, but there would appear to be more to it than that.
As professor Peter A. Coclanis – the director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – observed in Newsweek in the wake of the study, the “findings will not surprise any student of southern history. The South has long been a public health disaster area with the region’s population topping the charts in statistics relating to morbidity, mortality, and various and sundry indices of parlous health outcomes for a century and a half.
“The region’s dubious rankings in these regards are closely related to – indeed, inter-correlated with – similar rankings regarding per capita income/wealth, poverty, educational achievement, and other socio-economic indicators.”
Only one thing has changed, and changed mightily, in those 150 years, he added; “whereas the principal reason for rejecting southern males for military service in 1898, in World War I, and in World War II was failure to meet minimum weight requirements, the authors of the new study emphasize obesity.
“One of the most dramatic changes in the relationship between nutrition and income in the U.S. in recent decades has been the reversal of the historical relationship between income/wealth and weight.
“Basically, poor people buy cheap, high-caloric foods in order to survive and don’t have the time or resources to burn off the fat.”
Once finding that “time or resources” to burn off fat was unnecessary because of the way people lived. Far more of them were engaged in calorie-burning manual labor. Far more of them walked rather than drove to get from point A to point B.
And, of course, the governmental support systems that enable the less fortunate to buy cheap, high-calorie food were lacking.
Government-backed social support systems are relatively new. They didn’t exist when my parents or grandparents were born. They, in fact, didn’t come into existence until 1935 and then only in the very limited form of Social Security.
How people lived in American before that, both in how they traveled and how the struggling were cared for, is well illustrated by a story published by The Dakota Icelanders Project dedicated to the immigrants from Iceland who settled in that state in the late 1800s.
When Gudrún Long wanted to visit a friend six miles away in March of 1881, she set out on foot with her two children, 9-year-old Borghildur and 7-year-old Vilhjálmur. It was cold. There was still snow on the ground, the project recounts. She was discouraged from making the trip, but countered that a six-mile hike for the family was no big deal.
“Not long after they left the wind began to howl,” the story says. “Threatening clouds overcast the sky, and snowflakes were falling fast. A North Dakota blizzard in all its fury was sweeping the prairies. Soon it was pitch dark. No one knew whether Gudrún and the children had reached Gardar. One hope remained, that she might have reached some home not too far from the road.”
They didn’t. Gudrún was found dead, the children alive beneath the coat with which she’d covered them after digging them into a snowdrift:
“The bereaved children told how their mother had removed her own coat and other wraps to bundle them up in and then buried them in the snow, admonishing them not to stir until she returned. She was going to find her bearing before going farther.
‘It was such a long night,’ wailed the tearful children. ‘We were so scared we couldn’t sleep and we prayed constantly as mother told us to do.’
‘Now the long night was over, but there was no living mother to cling to.
“Thorlákur Jónsson assured the nine-year-old Borghildur that she could be a member of his household. She remained there until she married at the age of 18.
“The seven-year-old Vilhjálmur was adopted by Björn Thórlaksson.”
I remember my grandmother talking about these North Dakota storms, and how it was sometimes unsafe even to go from home to the barn because one could lose sight of everything in the blowing snow, wander off and freeze to death.
Such was the nature of life in those times in the country where Grandma Alma was reared. About her family, the Jacobsons, I know little other than they were immigrants and that she grew up speaking Swedish not far from where Gudrún died.
Immigrants from Scandanavia started arriving in North Dakota in the late 1860s, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and “from 1892 to 1905, almost half of all the immigrants in North Dakota were Scandinavians.”
Due to crop failures, 330,000 Swedes were reported to have fled their homeland for the U.S. in the decade of the 1880s. Most of them were farmers who gravitated to the Midwest.
“Minnesota became the most Swedish of all states, with Swedish Americans constituting more than 12 percent of Minnesota’s population in 1910,” according to the Minnesota Historial Society. “In some areas, such as Chisago or Isanti counties on the Minnesota countryside north and northwest of Minneapolis, Swedish Americans made up close to 70 percent of the population.”
If family stories can be believed (and the PBS show “Finding Your Roots should make anyone skeptical about believing them too much), Alma grew up just across the state line to the northwest.
She hardly ever talked about her childhood, but what little she said made it pretty clear it wasn’t easy. It seldom was for Americans in those days.
She met Ralph on the cusp of the Great Depression. Ralph’s family appears to have been living in Grand Forks, N.D., at the time, where his father worked for the Northern Pacific Railway.
They never talked about how they met. According to records compiled by The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, they were married Aug. 27, 1928, in Marshall, Minn.
Alma was a teenager. Ralph was not much older. Donna was born four months and a few days later, something unknown to me until some family medical issues sparked a search through the genealogy records.
The Great Depression is generally considered to have begun with the stock market crash of October 1929. Grandpa never talked much about what he did in those days to keep the family alive, but my mother said he spent some time riding the rails looking for work.
He didn’t talk about that, either, but I do remember both my grandfather and grandmother reminiscing about the problems rationing caused for businesses during World War II, and how they struggled at times running both bars and restaurants.
By the time I was born, however, they seemed to have figured it out and were living quite comfortably in the small town in central Minnesota where they co-owned a successful bar.
Ralph knew a lot of people in the liquor business in the Twin Cities, some of whom it seemed were in the liquor business before liquor again became legal at the end of Prohibition.
My mother, now long dead, used to talk about some sketchy times when she was a kid growing up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area before the family moved north to Staples, where Ralph’s father, my grandfather, also lived.
Memories of great-grandpa Lawrence are vague. When he died in 1961, I was but nine years old, and by then already under the impression that he and Ralph didn’t get on so well.
Who knows what happened. It’s possible Lawrence, who worked as an engineer for the North Pacific up until his retirement, wasn’t happy with his son’s bootlegging or the young Swedish girl he’d married, or maybe Lawrence simply knew something the rest of us didn’t know.
On his deathbed, Ralph confessed to my mother that he’d been married once before and never bothered to get divorced. That just about floored my poor mother, who knew only that Ralph met Alma Mathilda Jacobson when she was still a teenager, and they married soon after.
Times were different then and a whole lot harder. An old Associated Press reporter, John Greely, and I once got into a rollicking debate about whether these times made people inherently tougher. We were tied up aboard a sailboat and had been drinking a bit.
He argued hard work made people both physically and mentally stronger. I rather vehemently countered with the opposite, citing sports records that clearly show humans getting faster and stronger through time.
He was right; I was wrong.
The norm should be judged not by the exceptional but by the average. People were tougher than and most certainly leaner. On average, we are weaker now and fatter, and in this pandemic, we are paying the price for our own physical devolution.
Still, we are blessed in that our technological achievements have continued to outpace our increasing physical neglect. Were it not, this pandemic might look every bit as bad as that of the Spanish flu.
At the moment, it is thankfully not. As of this writing, the Worldometer tacker counts 772,315 Americans unfortunately and prematurely dead of Covid-19. That’s about one of every 431 people among us.
This is a staggering number, no doubt, but only about a third the rate of the Spanish flu. We should all be thankful for that in the sense that things can always be worse.