When Fern Chester Meek, a 22-year-old former high school teacher from Coffey County, Kansas, succumbed to the pandemic, the pain his community felt was heartbreaking. A local paper reported that the last time Meek had visited Lebo, he’d umpired a baseball game. Another piece recalled that he’d been active in debate in high school and had also played on the basketball team, where he’d once suffered an injury during a match at Lawrence that put him in the hospital.
By all accounts Meek was a likable young man, one who took his civic duties seriously. In a grainy school yearbook photo, he looks just as serious as we could have guessed: Suit and tie, hair carefully trimmed, no smile, wide eyes staring at something beyond the camera.
The death of Fern Meek, who had joined the Army just six weeks before he died of the virus that had left the nation reeling, was heavily reported in the local papers. There was the news of his death, the pieces about his career as a high school athlete, the item that undertaker E.A. Stone would receive Meek’s body at the station from the southbound Katy.
Even if you didn’t know Meek — and most assuredly there is nobody alive now who does remember him — reading about his death leaves you with a sense of loss. His community had been diminished by his passing, just as John Donne warns; the bell tolls not just for Fern, but for all of us.
Fern Meek died 102 years ago come Oct. 19.
He was pronounced dead at the base hospital at Fort Riley — which was ground zero for the 1918 pandemic — after having enlisted to fight in World War I. While there are similarities between the pandemic of a hundred years ago and the one today, including masks and social distancing and the friction between medicine and commerce, there are remarkable differences as well. In 1918, the influenza hit young people the hardest, because they lacked the natural immunity of older folks, who had been exposed to a similar strain decades earlier.
But perhaps the biggest change in the way we are dealing with this pandemic is that, for most of us, pandemic deaths are abstract. Even with cases resurgent, few Kansans are likely yet to know personally someone who has died. These losses remain statistics, and this distance promotes apathy. We aren’t routinely learning the stories of the lives the coronavirus disease has taken, and we can’t share in a community’s grief.
This is because a combination of state and federal laws make personal medical information confidential, in some cases for as long as 50 years after an individual’s death; because the virus has hit vulnerable populations that tend to be hidden from the rest of society, such as nursing homes and prisons and meatpacking plants, where many of the workers are foreign nationals; and because local media outlets don’t report deaths as thoroughly as they did even a couple of decades ago.
News obits are rare in community papers, having been replaced by death notices that are written by funeral homes or family members and are remarkable for their vagueness and an aversion to using the word “died.” Some families have announced deaths on social media, of course, and that generates some news coverage, but by and large we have scant information. Without the names and faces of the dead, the toll remains distant.
And yet, the coronavirus has killed as many Kansans so far (326, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment) as those who die annually by drug overdose. It’s twice as many of us as are murdered each year. And we are on track, if the fall is as bad as the spring, to equal the total number of Kansans killed in action during World War I (569, according to a 1921 report from the state adjutant general’s office).
The laws that protect patient privacy are important. Personally identifiable medical information is wisely among the exemptions to the Kansas Open Records Act. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is meant, in part, to protect your health history from fraud or theft. There are some death records that are public in the state, but generally only when that information is revealed in a court case or a coroner’s report is filed with the county clerk.
But the health privacy laws, which under ordinary circumstances do well to protect us, might be contributing to our reluctance to understand our current jeopardy. Disproportionately, the coronavirus strikes minorities, the aged and those in difficult low-paying jobs — the very groups that traditionally haven’t had much of a public voice.
On June 27, 1969, “Life” magazine ran names and faces of the 217 Americans that had been killed in Vietnam in a previous week. Seeing the faces of those we’d lost changed opinions.
Let’s start publicly remembering those we’ve lost to the pandemic. Seeing their names and faces just might help those who don’t understand how their personal irresponsibility in failing to mask or social distance affects others. Better six feet away than putting somebody you don’t know six feet under.
Max McCoy teaches journalism at Emporia State University.