As the coronavirus crisis deepens, we confront a most basic question: Will we survive this? We tapped our correspondents for their thoughts.
An emergency hospital during the Spanish flu epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, circa 1918 (Wikimedia Commons/National Museum of Health and Medicine)
“We can learn from our mistakes.”
By Maggie Fox
When you’re living in Hong Kong and working for a news outlet half a world away, you get used to middle-of-the-night wake-up calls that end with a “whoops” and an apology.
But the call that roused me pre-dawn on October 19, 1987, was different. A breathless radio producer told me the U.S. stock market had just tanked. The Dow Jones Industrial Average — a collection of share prices for representative stocks — had fallen by more than 22% in a single day. The expectation was that markets in Tokyo and Hong Kong would follow.
Worse, gold prices had also slid. That went against all reason. Canny Asian investors always kept gold as a hedge against volatile share prices.
I gave myself a few minutes to lie back in bed and think for a moment about myself before I had to jump up and prepare for a day reporting on crazed markets. Would currencies also plunge? As a 20-something, I didn’t have many investments, but I worried about what little I did have. Had my life savings just been erased? Would I have to pawn my modest jewelry collection?
That day, Black Monday, was both busy and as dark as its name implied. Markets around the world lost $1.7 trillion in value as people sold anything they could. Losses continued for months, into the next year.
But as we all now know, the markets recovered. The Dow endured more plunges over the next decades – Black Friday in 1999, the Flash Crash of 2010. And now the coronavirus pandemic is bringing even worse losses.
I later became a health and science specialist and have spent a lot of time focusing on pandemic preparedness. What is happening now has been predicted by many a computer model – illness spreading, markets crashing. A recession is very possible.
But every crisis has led to improvements. Black Monday led to new trading rules that stop selling when prices fall too far, too fast, allowing people to calm down. Outbreaks of disease such as SARS have propelled governments to develop better ways to test people to detect disease spread, and infrastructure to more quickly develop drugs and vaccines.
The world was not as prepared as it should have been for COVID-19, but societies have also shown that we can learn from our mistakes. I still wear the amethyst ring I twisted on my finger on that dark October morning in 1987, and I can still look forward to tomorrow.
* * *
“Every new generation has to be reminded to not make a bad choice.”
By Elaine Monaghan
I was an adolescent sitting alone on a farm in northwestern France in the early 1980s when I first read about the mysterious illness we now call HIV/AIDS.
With my school French, I stumbled through the words in the local newspaper, sitting at the plastic table and chairs outside our little villa. By the end of it, I was grateful to be a girl – and alarmed to read about what was happening to men who had sex with men and were dying in awful ways. Eventually, we understood we were all at risk, if we were sexually active or shared needles, to an illness that at first was a death sentence. Like many people, I would know someone who died – in my case, a beloved professor at my university in Scotland.
At first, people were terrified they might catch it just through casual contact. We came to understand that provided we got tested and used condoms, we’d be fine. Now, with more than 32 million lives lost to the illness, many people are in a position to protect themselves, and the international community works to support those who cannot, though we still have a lot of work to do, for example ensuring pregnant women in Africa have access to medication to prevent transmission. Every new generation, everywhere, has to be reminded of the need to keep themselves safe, and to not make a bad choice on a boozy night out.
Now my favorite holiday spot is near the beach town of Rehoboth, Delaware, where the names of some of the many gay men lost to HIV/AIDS are memorialized in sidewalk bricks. I am a professor myself, of journalism, at Indiana University. My colleagues and I are fighting to keep teaching and to figure out ways to keep our student reporters safe in the face of a new and terrifying virus that infects people far more easily. Even though the situation is moving rapidly, the worst is ahead, and we still have a lot to learn. I am convinced enough people will make personal sacrifices to keep their communities safe, and that we will find our way.
* * *
“You live with hope for the future.”
By Betty Wong
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, started off like any other work day. I noticed the crisp air and clear blue sky as I walked across midtown Manhattan for work at the Reuters newsroom. Toward the end of the 8:45 a.m. daily news planning meeting, there was a report of a small plane that hit the Twin Towers. The magnitude of what really happened and the repeated images on CNN reverberated for hours.
I was Reuters equities editor, and I remember the controlled chaos of reporters gathering news on companies and the stock market. I asked another editor to walk the newsroom floor with me to check for signs of staff stress.
I found out schools were closing early. After confirming my husband would pick up my then three- and six-year-old daughters, I refocused on work. At around 6 p.m. my sister called and said her husband was safe. He was a New York City cop sent to the Twin Towers after the initial reports, and with cell service spotty, she didn’t hear from him all day and feared the worst. I got home to Connecticut at around 9 p.m., and as I walked home, I passed a church with lights brightening the stain glass windows. I remember wanting to stop in, but I headed home because extended family were waiting for me.
For weeks, my path from Grand Central Station across to Times Square was lined with policemen at every corner. I got through it with the routine of work and wanting to provide security and normalcy for my young kids.
Looking back, I hoped I would never again live through something so terrible. Yet, terrible things still happen from terrorist events to mass shootings. But wonderful things happen too. My daughters are grown, have graduated from college and are working and leading their own lives. You live with hope for the future, because think of the alternative.
* * *
“Things did return to a new normal pretty soon after.”
By Deborah Charles
I was a Reuters White House correspondent on 9/11. Since President Bush was traveling, I was planning just to be in our little office in the White House press room, helping back up the reporters traveling with him. Instead I spent the day standing across the park from the White House, on the other side of heavily armed Secret Service who barred any of us from getting any closer. My job that day was to watch and see if any other planes were coming and aiming for the White House.
It was a time without iphones. We had pagers and cellphones, but calls couldn’t get through very often because the system was saturated.
We stumbled through that day and the next few days, with tanks on the streets of Washington and fighter jets flying overhead. It felt like nothing would ever be the same again.
But things did return to a new normal pretty soon after. Less than three weeks after 9/11, President Bush was up to his normal habit of teasing reporters. This time it was aimed at me.
I was just about to leave the White House beat to start covering the Justice Department. At a photo op in the Oval Office with the king of Jordan, Bush singled me out, calling me “retirement lady”. I was 36 at the time and far from retirement.
“Once you leave the White House, we view it as retirement,” Bush quipped.
* * *
“I started waking up at 4 a.m.”
By Tom Heneghan
Hong Kong harbor twinkles magically at night, especially when seen from near the top of The Peak where we lived while I was economic news editor for Reuters Asia in the late 1980s. But the memory of that view is a melancholy one for me because it was the backdrop to the fright of my first major stock market crash.
At 36 with a growing family, I’d been confidently watching my stocks go higher and higher for several years. Our new apartment boasted a Reuters Monitor screen for economic news near a glass wall looking out over the city. After the Dow Jones plunged 22.6% on Black Monday, October 19, 1987, I started waking up at 4 a.m. local time — when Wall Street closed at 4 p.m. in New York — to go into the dark living room to check how badly my portfolio had done halfway around the world.
After surveying the damage every night on that small green screen, I turned to stare out the picture window at the peaceful harbor below. “I wish I could appreciate this view like I should,” I repeated as I counted my losses in my head.
All my instincts screamed “get out of this market,” but my accountant swore that was the worst thing to do. Stocks did eventually go back up, like he said they would, and I learned to have more nerve. While subsequent falls might bother me, they didn’t drive me to the worry I experienced those dark nights.
By that time, though, I was far from Hong Kong, and its harbor lights were stuck in my memory as the backdrop to my loss.
* * *
“It’s self-isolation that matters today.”
By Feizal Samath
As I look out of the window, computer at hand, on this Monday, March 16 — declared a compulsory holiday by Sri Lankan authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — my mind goes back to 49 years ago when the government declared an island-wide curfew to help battle a left-wing Marxist revolt.
While gun battles erupted mostly outside police stations, it was an exciting time for us as kids. No school meant days spent playing cards, carrom, cricket and football in the large gardens that most homes had. And most of all, plucking fresh fruit from trees in the garden.
Sitting at my computer while others at home dabble with their phones or other electronic gadgetry on this holiday, life has changed dramatically. While large gardens have disappeared over time and group games are virtually non-existent, it’s self-isolation in your little room that matters today.
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“Good food and fresh air were credited for his recovery.”
By Susan Ruel
I offer a short history lesson on how my paternal grandfather, Leo Ruel, survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
A young U.S. naval recruit, he nursed fellow sailors at a crowded barracks in Biloxi, Mississippi, until he came down with the disease himself.
Surviving the initial onslaught of symptoms, he was eventually shipped home to New Hampshire to regain his broken health. Leo was then sent across the Canadian border to the ancestral farm in rural Quebec. There, an abundance of good food and fresh air was credited for his recovery.
One of my nephews brought this account of our “Pepère” to his U.S. history class at the Naval Academy before he graduated and joined his older brother as a Navy SEAL.