COVID-19: Lessons from our grandparents

The “greatest generation” endured WWII. Now it’s our turn to defend them – and our health care system

During World War II most Canadians were not on the front lines, like health care workers are today. Instead, people supported the fight against fascism from home. Today, as COVID-19 preys on our elders and vulnerable neighbours, it’s up to younger generations to work together to defeat this unseen enemy.

Through simple actions we can defend elders who made great sacrifices for us, their children and grandchildren. Along the way, we can take some lessons from their response to an extended global crisis.

My grandparents grew up in the deprivation and uncertainty of the Great Depression, and came of age through World War II. While mass quarantine is inconvenient and stressful, the demands placed on us by public health officials pale in comparison to what previous generations lived through.

Life during wartime

Most of Canada lived under curfews and travel restrictions. As a teenage auxiliary my grandfather Bob cycled around the streets of Port Coquitlam enforcing a blackout. He turned off streetlights to conserve energy for factories, but also so enemy bombers couldn’t use the lights to target Vancouver, as many feared.

People couldn’t just buy what they wanted in stores. Nylon was desperately needed for parachutes. Rubber, aluminum, and gasoline were needed for trucks, planes and tanks. Store-bought food was rationed too. Many people tore up their lawns to plant “victory gardens,” to free up Canada’s agricultural capacity for the Allied armies.

They lived for years with uncertainty and grief and fear. 43,000 Canadians died in the war, out of a population of just 11 million. Every family was affected. People didn’t know when it would end, and they didn’t know if we would win.

Lessons from the Internment

Families suffered in different ways. My dad’s family was forced into Japanese internment camps for the duration of the war. They lost everything – their houses, vehicles, anything they couldn’t carry. My grandma Miyuki learned to cook on a wood stove and sew her own clothes. She didn’t know if they would ever get out.

Yoshida family Tashme internment camp 1943

Miyuki Yoshida (centre) with her family in the Tashme internment camp, 1943.

I think of her stories and lessons today, as we face the most serious global pandemic in a century.

Lesson one: be prepared. As a kid I remember my grandma’s pantry, cupboards, freezers and basement bursting with food. I loved picking plums, spiny cucumbers and tomatoes from her back yard garden. I remember my grandpa John’s hoard of tools and machine parts, margarine tubs full of hardware and fishing gear. I wondered why they never threw anything away. Now we know.

Lesson two: suck it up. As my grandma says, shikata ga nai. Some things can’t be helped. If you learn to accept what you can’t control, you have more mental energy for the everyday building blocks of survival.

Lesson three: do it for others. If you have kids, they will probably remember this experience for the rest of their lives. What will they remember? Some Japanese internees who were children during the war actually have happy memories. They talk about playing baseball or fishing in the creek. If we respond to stress and uncertainty by falling apart, our kids might internalize that instead.

Flattening the curve

If you don’t have kids, please do it for the old folks and health care workers. Washing your hands is a mundane chore. Taking yourself out of the chain of disease transmission by staying home is boring, and painful if you’re losing wages. But it really does have an effect – look at South Korea. Add all of our actions together, and we can slow the march of this disease.

Miyuki Nagata in the garden

Miyuki Nagata gardening later in life

My beloved grandmothers are 90 and 96, respectively. I want to visit them. I want to hold my grandma’s hand, kiss her cheek, tell her not to be afraid – but I can’t. Her assisted living facility is on lockdown, and for good reason. We are facing a plague that spares most children and young people, but threatens to inflict a painful death on our elders.

In my family and many others, these people are our librarians, genealogists and historians. They are not a burden. They are our link with the past. If we lose them, we lose the chance to ask them questions. Let’s not forget their lessons.

What else can we do?

If you’re stuck at home, there are things you can do to help yourself, your family and your community tough it out. You can phone elderly relatives to check up on them. You can call friends who are struggling with lost work or depression or relationship issues or cabin fever. People across the country are stepping up to look after their neighbours, and forming local mutual aid groups to feed and support people who are self-isolating.

You can also take action online and by phone to ensure our governments get their priorities straight when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example:

Dogwood and Leadnow have launched a joint action calling on federal cabinet ministers to pause public spending on pipeline construction. The federal government is about to approve the next construction loan for the Trans Mountain expansion. We argue that $12.6 billion sum could be better spent on pandemic response.

South of the border, oil companies, airlines and other corporations smell the opportunity for a big fat federal bailout. They’re leaning hard on Ottawa for the same treatment. It’s called disaster capitalism, and we need to be ready to fight it. Unlike WWII, this is a battle that can be waged from your couch or kitchen table.

Tell Canadian cabinet ministers: Save Lives, Not Pipelines

14 Responses to “COVID-19: Lessons from our grandparents”

  1. Terry Dsnce-Bennink says:

    Love this valuing of elders and their experience. Thanks Kai!

  2. Yarrow Aiko says:

    Kai Nagata – Thank you for sharing your story – my grandparents were interned during the war and one of the biggest lessons I learned from them was ‘motai nai’ – do not waste anything! I too have been following S. Korea and have no shame in wearing a homemade, washable mask.
    Be Well

  3. Terry Hood says:

    Terrific article. Thank you.

  4. Casey says:

    Thank you for putting things in perspective and honouring the elderly and health care workers. Even at this moment we are faring better than a lot of other parts of the world. For most of us in Canada, we have access to food delivered at our doorstep, fresh water, and a roof over our heads. We also have access to the internet and technology that keeps us in touch with our loved ones and the rest of the world. We must remember to be grateful as we push on.

  5. Joseph Gold says:

    ”The test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. But affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true goldmines of a culture.”

  6. This is so simply and eloquently written. Many of us baby boomers and subsequent generations have not had to sacrifice much in our pursuit of a comfortable life (although many marginalized communities, Indigenous communities and other’s left out of an expanding and greedy economy know what it’s like). I hope this wakes up most of us to realize that a new order is required that serves the many over the few and awakens an appreciation for what is of true value in life.

  7. Jean says:

    Yes, we are all stressed by staying in but if it helps stop this pandemic, it’s a necessity. My father fought in WW1 and we survived WWII. Help control and kill this virus.

  8. Valerie Delaney says:

    So true. I used to wonder why my Mom always wanted to have a couple of containers of tinfoil on hand….”because we did not have any during the war”, she said. My father-in-law and Dad were WWII and Korean war veterans respectively. This is an amazing generation! They had grit…those who are still alive from that generation still do! Thank you for reminding us of their sacrifices and the need to protect them. And, yes, could we please direct money towards a sustainable future!

  9. J. Bruce Craig says:

    What an excellent story from history and the many lessons we can apply. Thank you for sharing this Kai.

  10. fernande says:

    very well written such a eye opener.

  11. David van Stolk says:

    Save lives, not pipelines

  12. Anne says:

    Excellent article that helps with perspective. Thanks, Kai.

  13. frances says:

    My own parents grew up during the “hungry thirties,” the Depression; their parents were immigrants to arrived with nothing: one side was “lucky,” they arrived in spring … the other side, in early fall, living in something called a “soddy,” a hole dug in the earth, with the prairie sod piled up like bricks, saplings laid across the top and covered with more sod.
    They had to be hardy, and to pull together, not only as a family but as a community. Since that’s what they knew, it was not compared to better.
    Many people, for one reason or another, spend long stretches being unable to leave their homes: for them, life’s not that much different, and hearing the complaints of people who “have” to live with their own children seems very odd to me, born within a handful of years of the end of WW2. We had things very, very good compared to our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
    I am indeed lucky, in that I have a patio and a yard. Lots of people in my city live in basement rooms (some with bad landlords on top of everything else).

  14. Bridge Dale says:

    The healthcare system has to play an important role in defending all of these people against the pandemic. We had to make sure that our system was strong enough to endure it.

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