It's not at all uncommon to hear someone on a news broadcast say, "I've never seen anything like this before," even when, in many cases, the event is not quite as unique as the news makes it out to be.
So along comes Coronavirus, and I've heard it said about a thousand times on news reports… say it with me... "I've never seen anything like this before." Maybe with a single exception… the AIDS epidemic… most of us actually never have seen something like this. There remain, however, a few centenarians who have experienced a similar crisis: the great Influenza epidemic of 1918, 102 years ago. In fact, I even saw a report of a 103-year-old woman in Italy who has now survived being stricken with both the 1918 flu and today's COVID-19 virus. I'm not sure if that makes her the luckiest person ever or the unluckiest.
The similarities between the two pandemics made me wonder how Masons reacted to the 1918 event. The documentation is spotty, but there are enough examples to indicate Freemasonry played a role in the relief effort.
In similar fashion as today, Lodges and Grand Lodges alike suspended normal activities. Lacking email, Twitter, Facebook, and other communications tools, those Lodges also posted notifications in their local newspapers.
Freemasons rallied across the country. In lieu of meetings, Lodges did what they were equipped to do. Masons opened their kitchens and made food for victims and health workers alike. Many other Lodges made their dining facilities available to the public and served meals. In Pennsylvania, the Grand Lodge moved healthy elderly residents of a retirement home into a Lodge where they could be segregated from those in the residence already stricken with the flu.
Far and away, the main thing Freemasons did during the pandemic was to convert their Lodge buildings into hospitals, many in towns that had no hospital at all.
In short, the country was knee-deep in a crisis, and Freemasons were there to help. That begs the question, what are we doing today?
In spite of the similarities between the two pandemics, our response, or anyone's response for that matter, would have to be different. While hospital beds are in short supply in many areas, Masonic Lodges are not well-suited to be hospitals. Other large facilities such as arenas, hotels, and even temporary buildings are filling that gap.
We can't open our Lodges to serve as eating places given the quarantine regulations, and many Lodges are not equipped to cook and deliver meals. Besides, restaurants have taken over that function by delivering carry-out meals, sometimes at no charge.
Things are further complicated by the fact that in virtually all jurisdictions, Lodges can't meet. In my jurisdiction, that means we can't vote on any distribution of funds or other activities that would require the Lodge's consent. Also, today, as opposed to 1918, there are far more large and coordinated relief efforts taking charge and providing assistance. Still, there are areas of need where Grand Lodges or individual members can step in.
The Grand Lodge of Ohio issued a report that enumerates some of its activities on the local and state levels. There, individual Lodge Brothers are delivering food and supplies to those who can't get out. They are also deferring payment for those items if the recipients are unable to pay. One Brother has set up an online audiobook library using his own collection of books for members, their families, and widows to access and enjoy. Still, another Lodge is calling not only its members but others in the community to do wellness checks. Another Brother with access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) he has accumulated in his job through the years is donating it to the medical community.
Any one of these ideas or something similar (like individual donations to food banks) would be something a Lodge can do as a grassroots effort by its members, without requiring a vote in a stated meeting. We are Masons, and one of our great tenets is relief. We don't always need formal votes and large-scale programs to pitch in. We need Brothers who will do it because… that's what we do.
A century ago, Masons stepped up to be among those at the forefront during a devastating pandemic. A century from now, what will they say about the Masonic effort in this crisis?