A century ago, the World suffered devastating consequences of the 1st World War. My great-grandfather Milorad Polić was a professor at the Second Belgrade Gymnasium before the war.
He was married to Draga Čvorić. They had three children. My grandfather Mileta was the youngest child. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared a war to the Kingdom of Serbia in 1914, the ministry of defense mobilized Milorad. He was assigned to the supreme command and followed its war paths from battle to battle, through victories and losses, through the Great Retreat, on the diplomatic assignment to Italy, and finally on the academic assignment to France to teach Serbian students-refugees. Meanwhile, my great-grandmother Draga and their three children exiled from occupied capital Belgrade to the village in western Serbia staying with their relatives. She worked as a volunteer nurse in a hospital during the war.
Letters, postcards, and money transfers were transiting war-torn Europe. Months would pass until a postcard and money, that Milorad mailed from France, would arrive to occupied Serbia after being routed through the Red Cross in Geneva and Vienna. Terrible period of uncertainty and impatience to receive a response letter contributed to anxiety. In exile and with rare news from their family refugees supported each other and relied on hospitality of their hosts.
In war devastated countries both refugees and their hosts shared scarce food, medicines, and other vital supplies. They worked together in the fields, schools, factories, construction yards. They have organized cultural events to learn more about each other. They fought together shoulder to shoulder, cured their wounds and buried dead together in France, Greece, Serbia… They also had something else in common, the will to act together and strive for freedom.
The war was over when Serbian and allied forces entered Belgrade in November 1918. Unfortunately, a new common enemy emerged – a flu virus. Draga fell ill in December just days before returning to their home in Belgrade. She did not survive respiratory complications and died in early January 1919. Milorad was in Nice when he received terrifying news of Draga’s death. He wrote a letter to the eldest daughter praising her to stay strong and to take care of her younger sister and brother until his return hopefully in mid-February. Such a terrifying words written on the back of postcard with lovely Nice waterfront panorama.
He was hoping to be repatriated soon on one of the boats that were taking back thousands of refugees from France. In February 1919 while waiting for repatriation and still teaching at Lycée de Nice, Milorad also fell ill with high fever and cough. As described in the letter from his colleague he would feel better in mornings and fever would push him to bed in afternoons. A week later he was diagnosed with pneumonia by Dr. Raymond at Lycée and hospitalized. He died on the 20th of February 1919 at 2h55. The following day funeral farewell took place at Caucade cemetery in Nice with his refugee-students, fellow professors, and friends. Students choral from Beaulieu sang. Professor André Despois, the director of the Lycée, gave a farewell speech. Milorad was buried at 5pm on the 21st of February 1919 in grave number 4742. My grandfather Mileta was 10 years old when he lost both parents due to “Spanish flu”.
According to newspapers archives on 1918 flu pandemic, there were three waves of mass flu infections. The first wave was hardly even mentioned in French newspapers during the first half of 1918, so the population considered the illness as an usual seasonal flu epidemic. The second wave started during summer months and it was much more devastating. According to French military health archives, during May, one out of eight patients had severe complications. In August it was one out of two! Since the French press was silent the population considered the flu epidemic over and was focused on the consequences of the war and its final battles. In September, the flu was following migrations of military troops and civilians. Saturated hospitals in deficit of drugs such as quinine, and antipyrine could not provide care to all patients. Previously silent press now flared with articles about the flu, its consequences, and prevention recommendations. In addition to regular handwashing, self-isolation of ill, wearing masks, and avoiding large gatherings in public places and transport, some recommendations were to wash mouth with disinfectants… In the absence of an effective scientific cure the press suggests do-it-yourself remedies, and “miraculous” discoveries that population may purchase over the counter for sky-rocketing prices. Every day the press published statistics on deaths due to the virus. In Paris, during the week of the 20th October 2566 people died. By the end of October, the average daily number of deaths was around 200. In November, the armistice was signed, and the virus decreased its strength. But the war with virus is not over. In December the author of “Cyrano de Bergerac”, Edmond Rostand died after contracting the flu at the theater. An article in “L’Illustration”, covers the tragedy on Tahiti island where 1000 people died out of its population of 5000. The same article blames “Navua” boat which arrived from San Francisco with several flu patients on board. However, massive gatherings and festivities to celebrate war victories were authorized. In February 1919, when my great-grandfather died, in Paris only there were 900 deaths in one week. There was no enforced isolation, people gathered in churches, schools, theaters, and public transport, and advertisement in the press proposed flu remedies that also cure lumbago.
One century later, I am semi-confined with my wife and two children at our home in Geneva since mid-March. I have been working as an international civil servant for over 25 years in several United Nations agencies and teaching as an adjunct faculty at international campus of an American university for over 17 years.
The humanity has been put on test once again with a corona virus pandemic. This time there is no war devastation and related separation of nations, but there are travel restrictions and border closures to slow down the spread of virus. The humanity is launching robots to Mars, even to comets and asteroids. We have global telecommunication networks that reach even the most isolated places on our planet, and beyond. I have a fiber optic connection at home streaming data at several hundred megabit per second, in both directions! The humanity is debating about the next “fifth” generation of mobile communication networks that some link to the propagation of virus, not the computer virus, to COVID-19 (hCOV-19) virus. Being able to disseminate information faster does not contribute to general increase of knowledge. Humanity understands genetics since the structure of DNA was discovered in fifties of the last century. Now, 70 years later, we have tools to manipulate DNA and RNA sequences such as CRISPR but the humanity is not ready to use it against the COVID-19 virus, nor any other virus. We have big-data capable information systems and data integrity assurance cryptographic systems. We have public access databases on virus genome and mutations, but nations don’t trust each other and the veracity of provided information. They are accusing each other of trying to steal data about virus remedies rather than working together to find an effective cure and make it available to 8-billion large population (4 times that from the century ago). Global forums, created also 70 years ago to address global issues such as pandemic, are victims of mistrust, as it is the case of the World Health Organization. Rather than finding a solution, nations are trying to escape from the problem. But there is no place to hide from the virus within ourselves.
Education is the only remedy that works against “global enemies”. But to be effective, education must be global, accessible to everyone and verifiable. Thanks to technology, it is. I am so lucky that unlike my great-grandfather who had to teach his students in person during pandemic and died as a consequence, I continue to teach my students online no matter where they are in the World. And I have students on all continents. And my two children were able to study online, pass their exams online and graduate. And I can also work online as an international civil servant, no matter where I am and where my constituents are, and they are on all continents. And we continue to share information, increase knowledge and to disseminate it in transparent, verifiable ways, so that we can trust each other, and maximize the use and value of information and knowledge. That will hopefully contribute to the common increase of human intelligence, so that humanity can survive and strive for the better future.
29 July 2020 update
Visiting Nice and paying tribute to WW1 and Spanish Flu victims and heroes. An olive tree in front of Lycée Massena reminds visitors of their contribution to the peace. Nowadays during COVID-19 pandemic a small sacrifice of wearing mask, washing hands and respecting 1m distance helps saving lives and living normal daily life.