M. L. E. Brown
‘Community transmission’ is a term the entire world will be much more familiar with after the Covid-19 pandemic. In medical parlance, the term refers to the apparent absence of epidemiological link within a community beyond its confirmed cases. It might also be applied in a holistic sense, when the reach of mass catastrophe seeps into cultural and emotional memory.
My parents were older than those of my schoolmates. Born in 1913 and 1918 respectively, they were middle-aged by the time I was born in 1966. Theirs was the generation of New Zealand infants who started life scarred by the immediate effects of World War One. My mother was a wonderful sick-nurse. I remember an occasion when my elderly aunt and uncle caught a serious ‘flu. I recall myself in my mid-teens, hovering in the kitchen of their villa while my mother swept upstairs bearing reheated lunches she had pre-cooked at our place; and then downstairs again with linen and towels to be flung in my aunt’s ancient washing machine.
I wasn’t allowed upstairs. “Don’t eat that!” my mother snapped as I picked up a malt biscuit left over from my uncle’s barely-touched tray. She, who could never abide waste of any sort, scraped all the untouched food onto a tin plate and marched it out to the compost. She gave me some rubber gloves and told me to do the dishes and scrub the bench thoroughly with hot water and Vim. Afterwards, I mopped the kitchen and laundry floors with even hotter water and Janola while she returned upstairs to help the afflicted pair from their chairs back to the master bed she had already re-made with clean linen.
My mother approached influenza with the same fear and loathing my classmates’ much younger mothers reserved for rubella. She had lived through the polio epidemic of 1937 and afterwards trained as a nurse aide at the outbreak of the Second World War. While these experiences accounted for much of her technical efficiency and skill in a sickroom, it wasn’t until recently that I realised her near-obsession with ‘flu itself must have come from transmitted impressions of the infamous epidemic which swept the world in the year of her birth.
I once read an account taken from an interview with an old woman, a ten-year-old girl living in Onehunga with her family at that time. The woman described how the town’s populace barely noticed the war’s end, preoccupied as it was with the grimly silent never-ending procession of funeral carts ferrying the Spanish Influenza victims to Waikaraka Cemetery week after week. Whole families succumbed to the disease, which preferred the young and strong over the elderly. I think of my mother’s mother, struggling with four young children elsewhere in Auckland at the same time. Trapped in a house with a mother-in-law still grieving for lost soldier sons, little money, and Spanish Flu sweeping the country. Multiply one family by thousands and you have a mass memory, less celebrated than the ANZAC sacrifice, but no less part of our national sub-conscious.
There are many things I inherited from my older-than-average parents. Possibly the most valuable legacy now – as I languish on a couch in 2020 while Covid-19 stalks every dermal layer of civilisation outside – is their body memory of a time largely lost to living memory. I was taught how to house-keep without waste, to save without hoarding, to nurse with rigour but also with kindness; to garden as much as a means of exercise and political independence as to secure a source of good healthy food.
Viewed holistically, one might equate Covid-19’s symptomatic trajectory through the body to 21st-century societal ailments. The fevered hectic pulse of consumerism for its own sake; the body-aching grind of the automaton constantly working for less pay and for an increasingly dubious outcome; the gradual asphyxiation of warring motor systems, each trying to assert some Darwinian authority over the other, when in truth The Whole must reconcile to be sustainable and productive.
Our greatest gain, then, would surely be an acknowledgment of which aspects of ‘normal’ are worth retrieving once the emergency is over. Like scarred lung tissue that nevertheless functions enough to breathe another season, the unspoken lore of trauma serves The Whole, keeping the good things, the tried-and-true alongside the memory of what works and what failed. Sub-conscious memory is always the legacy of pandemics. Hopefully, within our particular nightmare we will also find the necessary sources of immunity and a lasting improvement. Let this be the most powerful community transmission of all.
M. L. E. Brown is an Auckland-based novelist, poet, essayist, and photographer. She was one of two 2019 Emerging Pasifika Resident Writers at the Michael King Writer’s Centre and has had poems published in Tahakē Magazine and Cauldron Anthology. Her interests include humanities, sustainable economics, and the working relationship between allopathic and complementary medicines.