Being attuned to history is at once a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing because knowing what happened in the past is the best way to comprehend what’s happening now, and anticipate what will happen in the future. Yet it’s a curse because the mistakes we have made and are making – and sometimes the sheer oblivion people display – can be so painfully clear.
Covid-19 at first caught our nation flat-footed. I have cringed while reading social media posts poking fun at the concern over the virus and the closings of schools, businesses and restaurants. Some have even blamed the media as creating a mass panic instead of crediting our reporters and broadcasters for being vigilant and doing their job.
Back in the early 1980s, as a young Bryan Times editor, I interviewed several World War I veterans. I was quite surprised that almost to a man they mentioned the 1918 influenza outbreak. I listened almost in disbelief as one of the veterans told me about contracting the virus as a young recruit at Camp Sherman near Chillicothe.
This soldier told me the doctors had given him up for dead, and summoned his father. When he came to his senses, the veteran said, his father was there and very surprised to see his son alive. In fact, the old soldier told me, there was a tag attached to his big toe to identify what they believed was his soon-to-be corpse.
I came away knowing it was not a matter of whether a similar outbreak would occur, but when.
Today that same information is available at our fingertips. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website sums up the 1918 outbreak quite clearly: “It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States ... “
So with that background, perhaps you can understand that I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I watched our nation’s slow reaction to Covid-19. Early on we still allowed flights from China into the United States, and after the virus spread to Europe we failed to slow the spread and allowed flights from those areas as well.
Even though we watched the devastating effects of Covid-19 in Asia, we were slow to ramp up our capacities to test for the virus (and) we initially took no significant steps to provide additional hospital facilities and equipment here in the United States.
I was further sickened and actually enraged when I learned that in 2018 – so ironically the centennial of the deadly 20th century outbreak – our nation’s executive branch eliminated our U.S. pandemic response team as a cost cutting measure. That certainly puts our slow-footed Covid-19 efforts into perspective.
There are differences between Covid-19 and the 1918 influenza, to be sure. The 1918 pandemic was due to an H1N1 virus, similar to the 2009 Swine Flu, and Covid-19 is a coronavirus. They spread somewhat differently, and the most deadly effects strike different age groups, with Covid-19 poses chiefly endangering the elderly, while the 1918 flu mortality was high in people younger than 5, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older.
A jarring similarity of the two is that the viruses can attach to the lower respiratory tract, leading to pneumonia.
Although we have better medical care today, we still have no vaccine against Covid-19. In many ways our response to today’s pandemic is not that much different than in 1918 when, as the CDC noted, “control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”
So, are the drastic measures being put into place today too strict? I think not, and 1918 provides some answers.
On Sept. 28, 1918, the city of Philadelphia, despite strong warnings from health officials, went ahead with a huge parade to promote Liberty Loans to support the war effort. A crowd of 200,000 people crammed the streets. Within three days every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals were filled. Within six weeks 12,000 Philadelphians died out of 47,000 reported cases. In six months about 16,000 died.
Contrast that with St. Louis, which followed the advice of their health officials and cancelled its Liberty Loan parade, closed schools and discouraged large social gatherings – and held deaths from the pandemic below 700.
So let’s follow the government’s warnings – stay home if you can, avoid large gatherings, clean common surfaces and wash, wash, wash your hands. Your life, and maybe even the lives of everyone you come in contact with, depends on it.
Don Allison is a retired editor of The Bryan Times, and author and historian and can be reached at www.fadedbanner.com