Thanksgiving and Covid

November 19th, 2020
It's getting colder and the virus is still spreading. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead. It's 399 years later, and Thanksgiving has changed less than you might have have hoped.

When the English arrived in what is now Massachusetts they found the Wampanoag devastated by smallpox:

The people not many, being dead and abundantly wasted in the late great mortality which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherein thousands of them died, they not being able to bury one another; their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectacle to behold.
  —Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford.

Smallpox was still spreading, however, and later he writes (warning: gore):

This spring, also, those Indians that lived about their trading house there fell sick of the small pox, and died most miserably; for a sorer disease cannot befall them; they fear it more then the plague; for usually they that have this disease have them in abundance, and for want of bedding and lining and other helps, they fall into a lamentable condition, as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering, and running one into another, their skin cleaving (by reason thereof) to the mats they lie on; when they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once, (as it were) and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold; and then being very sore, what with could and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep. The condition of this people was so lamentable, and they fell down so generally of this disease, as they were (in the end) not able to help on another; no, not to make a fire, nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead; but would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure no other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows; and some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way, and not be able to get in again.

But those of the English house, (though at first they were afraid of the infection), yet seeing their woeful and sad condition, and hearing their pitiful cries and lamentations, they had compassion of them, and daily fetched them wood and water, and made them fires, got them victualls whilst they lived, and buried them when they died. For very few of them escaped, notwithstanding they did what they could for them, to the hazard of them elves. The chief Sachem himself now died, and almost all his friends and kindred. But by the marvelous goodness and providences of God not one of the English was so much as sick, or in the least measure tainted with this disease, though they daily did these offices for them for many weeks together. And this mercy which they showed them was kindly taken, and thankfully acknowledged of all the Indians that knew or heard of the same.

The path of smallpox through the people of the Americas is one of the greatest tragedies of history, not only in how it killed so many and so brutally, but also in how it left the people so vulnerable to the English and other Europeans. The story above, with some of the English trying to help their neighbors through smallpox, feels a lot like how we generally celebrate Thanksgiving: a positive episode in a history that is, overall, shameful.

We are incredibly lucky that the virus we are fighting today is so much less lethal, and our medical care so much better. Still, at this stage where we have multiple promising vaccine candidates and the end is visible, it is even more important that we not give up. We cannot afford to celebrate Thanksgiving as we've done traditionally: indoors, in large groups, talking over a long meal, after traveling a long way to spend a holiday in close proximity with a different group of people from our regular contacts.

If your family is pressuring you to travel, the CDC recommendations may be helpful. We won't be gathering around a big table with our extended family this year, precisely because being able to do so is so important and we don't want to trade one year now for many in the future.

Figuring out how to celebrate in a way that makes sense for you and your family is tricky, however, and is going to vary by your personal situation. We're planning to have Thanksgiving with our household, and possibly one other person who had covid in April. For someone who lived alone, things might feel pretty different. We're also probably going to take a masked and socially distanced walk with our relatives who live in the area, and I think outdoor activities are generally underrated.

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