Speaking out: Comparing COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu

Speaking out: Comparing COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu

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Tory Jackson

Tory Jackson

Comparing COVID-19 to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 has become commonplace in recent weeks, and understandably so. In times of crisis, people instinctively turn to history to help make sense of current events.

In some ways, history can provide comfort by showing our current challenges are not altogether unique. Despite being a century apart, there are many parallels between the two pandemics.

The 1918 pandemic killed between 50 million and 100 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S., and as many as 1,700 in North Dakota. Lower-end projections anticipate hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths nationwide.

Coronavirus has spread rapidly in our hyper-connected and mobile world. But even in 1918, a disease that may have started in Europe (it didn’t actually start in Spain, despite the moniker, and some historians claim it started in Kansas) quickly spanned the globe, largely due to the movement of troops during World War I. Spanish flu reached North Dakota just a few months after the initial outbreaks.

Spanish flu came in waves, starting in the spring of 1918, waning in the summer, reappearing in the fall and winter, and extending into 1919. Medical experts warn that we, too, should be prepared for peaks and valleys in the coronavirus pandemic.

Current worries about overwhelming the health care system echo those from a century ago. North Dakota hospitals were short-staffed even before the pandemic arrived, as roughly one-third of the state’s doctors and 20% of its nurses were serving in the military as part of the war effort. Health care workers are stressed and overworked today, just as their predecessors were a century ago.

Much of the advice from public health officials in 1918 sounds familiar today. Avoiding close contact was key, and schools, churches, theaters and other public gathering places were closed. Personal hygiene also was stressed. One Bismarck doctor even advised that “clean bowels are a protecting armour (sic) against disease.” The historical record is unclear as to whether general stores ran out of toilet paper.

Describing the pandemic in warlike terms was common in 1918 just as it is today. President Trump calls himself a wartime president, and we speak of coronavirus as an enemy to be defeated. In 1918, influenza was described as an invasion, and the struggle against the pandemic was commonly referred to as the Other Great War.

As in 1918, leadership at the local and state level is critical, showing that while the power and size of the federal government has grown during the last century, the features of federalism endure, particularly in a national crisis. In 1918, nearly all of the governmental response was at the state and local level, and President Woodrow Wilson never spoke publicly about the pandemic (in an attempt to keep public focus on the war effort). Today, our president speaks constantly (and not always accurately) about COVID-19, but governors and mayors are in many ways the primary actors. State and local leaders, not politicians in Washington, are coordinating the medical response and imposing lockdowns, and they will decide how and when to ease those restrictions.

Historical comparisons often are fraught and never perfect (especially in a 600-word column). This column just as easily could have focused on the fundamental differences between our crisis and the one in 1918 -- how much our society, culture, politics and economy have changed since then -- and what that means in the current pandemic.

Even so, we can look back to 1918 and find some solace. As World War I continued toward its bloody conclusion, our ancestors persevered through a deadly pandemic and came out on the other side. It certainly won’t be easy, but chances are, we’ll do the same.

Tory Jackson is an attorney and writer. His legal practice involves real estate and business matters, with a particular focus on historic rehabilitation projects. He holds degrees from Bismarck State College, the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School. He lives in Bismarck, where he was born and raised.

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