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Two friends from what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” tested positive for COVID-19 in late 2020. They live in nursing homes in Wauwatosa, where Jo and I once lived, and in Richland Center where we live now. One was a favorite Sunday School teacher at the Loyd church, where my early faith was nurtured.

As I prayed for them I wondered how many more from that World War II generation are in danger from, or have died from COVID.

A nurse we know in the Milwaukee area wrote, “I know of three local nursing homes – one of which I work in, one of which my husband works in and one which my friend works in. One of them has 35 residents positive with COVID-19. Another has 52 out of 92 residents positive for COVID-19. And one of them has 90 percent of the residents positive for COVID.”

And I wondered if that generation, which has been suffering the consequences of so much COVID denial, would have done better than us in their prime. I wonder what they could teach us about coping with food lines, unemployment, the loss of businesses and homes, and rationing.

There was rationing throughout World War II. Every American was issued a series of ration books that contained removable stamps good for certain rationed items like sugar, meat, cooking oil and canned goods. Once a person’s ration stamps were used for a month, she couldn’t buy any more of that type of food. The Office of Price Administration issued the stamps, which also dealt with gasoline, steel, aluminum and electricity shortages. Scarce medicines such as penicillin were rationed by triage officers in the U.S. military. Civilian hospitals received only small amounts of penicillin. A triage panel at each hospital decided which patients would receive the penicillin.

A patriotic spirit pervaded most Americans, but there was also resistance to the call to sacrifice. In some regions breaking gas rationing was so prevalent that night courts were created to deal with the number of violators caught. There was also a black market in stamps. To prevent that the Office of Price Administration ordered vendors not to accept stamps that they themselves didn’t tear out of books.

I wish I could ask someone who remembers that time if the resistance to rationing and other sacrifices was as fierce as the resistance to masking and social distancing is now. An El Paso-based nurse, Ashley Bartholomew, recently tweeted that when she checked on a patient who was awake and alert, the news was on.

“El Paso was in the national headlines again for needing more freezer-truck morgues,” she wrote. “(The patient) mentions hating ‘fake news.’ He says, ‘I don’t think COVID is really more than a flu.’ … I’m at a loss for words. Here I am, basically wrapped in tarp; here he is in a COVID ICU. How can you deny the validity of COVID? … Misinformation is literally killing people.”

Gigi Perez, a California–based nurse who is actively treating COVID-19 patients, said, “The COVID-19 unit I work in has already lost seven nurses in the past three months due to the burnout from managing these types of patients. Workers are beginning to resent the public for not doing their part to help control the pandemic.”

Fierce resistance to harsh reality is not something new to humankind. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrews gave in to their fears again and again on the way to the promised land.

The prophet Nehemiah said, “They refused to listen and failed to remember the wonders You performed among them. They stiffened their necks and appointed a leader to return them to their bondage. But You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in loving devotion, and You did not forsake them.”

Hold on to Nehemiah’s reminder that God does not forsake us, even when we stiffen our necks and refuse to wear a mask.

John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the son of dairy farmers. He is the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives.” Email to reach him.

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