Plus ça change: We’ve seen this movie before

If you are much younger than I am, you probably don’t remember drive-ins.

As a child, I went to one which was often packed with rows of cars parked before a ginormous screen. Tinny speakers cradled on rolled-down windows provided sound. Open windows on a hot south Louisiana night can only mean mosquitoes. To combat the bloodthirsty onslaught, we had two main weapons: spray-on mosquito repellant and green combustible coils whose smoke would keep those little blood suckers away. We were used to the pungent smell of Pic, its brand name. In fact, its odor evokes fond memories of star-filled evenings watching the latest movies. Oddly enough, it also reminds me of the much less enjoyable COVID-19 crisis. How can pleasant childhood remembrances, you rightly ask, be related to this terrible pandemic?

First, the mosquito. Every now and then, we are reminded that the unofficial state bird of Louisiana, beyond being a nuisance, is a vector of diseases like West Nile and Zika. In his youth, my father would sleep under what he called a “mosquito bar.” It was not an actual bar, but a diaphanous cloth draped around the bed. Elsewhere people would call it mosquito netting, but the Louisiana French term “bère à moustique” is the origin of this colloquialism. For most of its long history, Louisiana was susceptible to yellow fever epidemics. It wasn’t until we understood the role Aedes aegypti played in the disease’s transmission that we took steps to control its proliferation. The last great outbreak of yellow fever in Louisiana was in 1905, within the lifetime of my grandparents. My grandmother would tell stories of how, as a little girl, she volunteered to care for the sick and dying during the Spanish flu epidemic that came shortly thereafter. Followed by hurricanes, floods, polio, measles and other various and sundry diseases and disasters, death and destruction were frequent visitors to the area. Yet, we are still here thanks mainly to discoveries and changes society made as our understanding of the challenges we faced grew.

Secondly, disaster movies were all the rage at the time. Drive-in marquees often displayed titles like “The Towering Inferno.” Although a mediocre film, at least it made some people think about the importance of sprinkler systems. We take them for granted now, like seat belts and smoke alarms, but simple ideas were just beginning to save lives. What would we have thought of taking off our shoes before boarding a plane back then? Nowadays, I get a little nervous if not everyone is barefoot going through security. Ironically, drive-ins may make a comeback as social distancing enters our everyday routines.

Maybe not on this scale, but we have seen this movie before. Due to our familiarity with adversity, we have always found a way to adapt, survive and thrive. For now, munching microwaved popcorn while binge watching at home seems to work. We don’t yet know what the ultimate solution will be this time, but we will find a way.


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