WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — Mingo County resident Lake Hopson is a very distinctive individual.
She is one of only a handful of people who can offer a firsthand account of both the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic and that of the current COVID-19 outbreak.
And that's because Lake, who resides at Horsepen, West Virginia, and will turn 104 later this month on April 29, has lived long enough to remember and/or experience the two world-threatening events in real time.
The total number of people who will ultimately contract COVID-19 as well as the final death toll attributed to the virus are statistics still to be determined. But health officials believe the Spanish flu pandemic killed 500 million people worldwide, with a staggering 675,000 of those deaths having occurred in the United States alone.
While the long-retired McDowell and Mingo teacher and principal admits she was only a toddler in 1918, she quickly points out that this in no way means she is unable to vividly recall the consequences that resulted from the pandemic nor the ones that resulted from other life-and-death diseases that closely followed.
The almost unimaginable number of deaths resulting from the 1918 influenza pandemic as well as the many other deaths that resulted from other lesser known outbreaks that ensued as she got a little older, Lake explained, would cause this time in world history to be clearly and indelibly seared into her memory and ultimately make it possible for her to now compare that time with the present.
"Home confinement and isolation were a very big part of the first few years of my life because of what (the Spanish flu) did, but also because of outbreaks of diseases like Small Pox that came later," Lake said. "So I guess in this way, that general time was very similar to what's happening now."
In that era, Lake said, a great number people in this region of the world lived somewhat isolated from the rest of the country but not necessarily from one another.
Most commonly people lived in crowded coal camps, with each camp having its own coal company doctor who would come around to a home and treat the sick and then, if a communicable disease was diagnosed, immediately direct everyone else to shelter in place.
"You didn't question what he said, you took it very seriously and just didn't go beyond your own yard to play with other children or to visit ... you just didn't go against what he told you," she said. "Like now, he knew the only way to keep something really bad from spreading was to keep everyone isolated. That's what we're similarly seeing now, though not everyone today is doing what they're told to. But they sure did back then."
Lake insisted a quarantine order was much more difficult on families then primarily because, markedly unlike today, there was no social networking, no FaceTime and, for the vast majority of families, not even a telephone one could use to call and check on family members and friends.
"Families were pretty much on their own, but you did the best you could ... different women would sometimes come to the very edge of a neighbor's property and try to communicate by hollering back and forth ... everyone tried to help one another the best they could, but always from a distance," she said.
Lake believes the current pandemic has at least the potential to be as catastrophic as the one that occurred in 1918, with possibly having an equal or even more tragic outcome in spite of all the advancements in medical treatment.
She bases this belief on the fact that there are far more people in the world now than populated it then, as well as the fact that people can move about and socially interact much more easily and efficiently than they could in the early part of the 20th Century.
But mostly she bases it on too many people seemingly still demonstrating a puzzling sense of indifference and/or non-urgency towards COVID-19 that was not even remotely evident during the 1918 flu pandemic, or, for that matter, at any other time during most of the years following her birth.
"Back then people listened and did what they were told to do, and you just don't see that as much today," she said. "If you didn't follow the rules in those days you were pretty much shunned and looked down on by everyone else. That's just not the case now, but if it was I really think you'd have less people breaking the rules and not doing what they've been told to do."