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Commentary & Opinion

Fred Kowal: A Test For Us All

We are now in the Coronavirus Era. Our social interactions, our institutions, our economy are being restructured moment by moment. Few of us have experienced anything like this.

As our world deals with the coronavirus, given what we know about its spread and its deadly nature, I fear that for quite some time, our lives will not be the same. And there are those who predict that things will get much worse, upending much of what we know. Time will tell…

As I often do, I find myself looking to history for lessons. As a social scientist, I observe, by nature. I see how others are dealing with the crisis and learn from their behavior, hoping to be thoughtful, calm and persistent as I confront the challenges that come my way.

I’m astounded by the media’s narrow view of our nation’s history. Almost exclusively, commentators and experts have compared the coronavirus to the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. It’s as if the only pandemic in American history was a hundred years ago. The focus globally is usually is on medieval plagues, and perhaps a mention of the Ebola epidemic several years ago.

They ignore the reality that humans have lived in the Western Hemisphere for at least 20,000 years. Most of that history has been lived by what we now know as Native Nations. Their experience is instructive, I believe for our circumstances.

When the Europeans arrived, the population of the present-day U.S. was somewhere between 10 million and 20 million people. That’s a big range, and it reflects uncertainty about how dense the population was. Archeological research and native oral history can only tell us so much.

If we go with 10 million, consider that by 1900, the native population in the U.S. had fallen to under 1 million. The population drop was mostly due to disease. Endless plagues that swept the continent were brought to these shores by Europeans, devastating the native population, which had no immunity to illnesses as common as measles, influenza and—worst of all —smallpox.

The smallpox epidemics were nightmarish. Recorded history and native oral traditions speak of entire villages— vibrant and self-sufficient— reduced to nothing in a matter of weeks. Survivors were left without homes, family or anything resembling their lives.

And yet, they survived.

Their tribal nations’ ability to overcome such widespread decimation—even as the U.S. government was engineering land theft by violence and by treaty, and attacking their culture using the boarding schools and other means—points to a lesson for us now. They survived. Native populations grew. Native identity and culture—throughout the 20th century—had a rebirth. They overcame the shock and destruction of what they could not comprehend.

In the 21st century, science tells us what we are facing. Research is ongoing and strides are being made.

To stop the spread of a deadly virus, we are asked to separate ourselves from society. The virus can be stopped—if we make responsible choices, if we support those doing the healing, and if we see ourselves as part of an interdependent society, not a collection of individuals.

Traditional native societies have always been guided by the wisdom that each part of the creation is part of a greater whole. We need to heed that wisdom. Now.

Speaking of healers, in my seven years as UUP president, I have never felt prouder of our members than when I consider our healing professionals at SUNY’s teaching hospitals.

The courage, dedication, determination, and compassion that our colleagues are summoning to treat the sick—arriving in larger and larger numbers at their facilities—must be recognized and honored.

They show us how we can overcome this crisis and be better from having endured it. Their presence on the front lines motivates me to advocate on their behalf and behalf of all health care providers right now.  

We will be persistent, we will be determined, we will be dedicated—just as our colleagues on the frontlines of the crisis—to ensure that we are safe, our families are safe, and our communities are healed.

Let us reach out to support each other, to sustain each other, and to grow wiser from this crisis—like the Native Nations across the continent who survived and are constant reminders of the resilience of a people committed to each other and a common future.

Hope and determination come to us from our ancestors. These are the tools we have been given. Let us use them now, more than ever.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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