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Epidemics, Then & Now: A Family Perspective

Epidemics, Then & Now: A Family Perspective

June 25, 2020

As Americans are repeatedly warned about a spike in coronavirus cases just as state governments have begun to allow us leave our homes and venture out (and yes, I mean “allow” us) I can’t help but wonder if they are gearing up for another round of stay-at-home and close-your-business orders. “It’s for our own good because we can’t be trusted,” they tell us as they broadcast photos of people being bad, usually at beaches. And I wonder if the people of this country will blindly let them do it again, even though it is really the politicians, the experts, and the media that cannot be trusted.

St. Louis 1918

My father’s Aunt Clara was 18 years old in 1918, living in Cresbard, South Dakota, and tracking her days in a journal. The difference is that in 1918, the world was in the middle of the Spanish Flu pandemic. And I happen to have a copy of that journal. Entries are filled with the names of her peers who succumbed to the flu, including her 20-year-old sweetheart. It is heartbreaking to read.

It is also a fascinating study on just how little people have changed. Clara stays out late with her friends, she doesn’t like algebra, she practices her piano, and she eats too much candy.

Also unchanged is how we deal with a global pandemic.

Two lesser known pandemics took place between the 1918 influenza and the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak: the 1957 Asian flu and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. Both highly contagious and deadly – the world witnessed over a million deaths each in an era when the global population was considerably smaller today’s 7.8 billion (2.9 billion and 3.6 billion respectively). For comparison, global deaths from Covid-19 now stand at 472,000.

The press simply didn’t prioritize reporting on these pandemics; it had other concerns, most notably the Cold War in 1957 and Vietnam in 1968. According to The Lancet article “The Art of Medicine: Revisiting the 1957 and 1968 Influenza Pandemics,” in 1957, “there were few hysterical tabloid newspaper headlines and no calls for social distancing.” And no one was concerned about hospitals being overwhelmed because “intensive care units were not yet established … and ventilator technology was rudimentary.”

It wasn’t until the 2009 Swine flu that public health authorities had access to computer models. At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the now thoroughly discredited Imperial College computer models predicted over 2 million dead in the United States and provided equally frightening death tolls for countries around the world. The press took these numbers and reported them as fact, as settled science, causing governments to, in essence, shut down the world.

Turns out, the press plays a large role in how these pandemics are perceived and handled.

The 1918 pandemic left 50 million dead across the globe (world population 1.8 billion). The United States saw 675,000 deaths.

It is difficult to compare the limited press in 1918 to nonstop media coverage today, but even in 1918, the press manipulated the news (yes, it is true. Fake news is nothing new). The world was immersed in World War I, and censors controlled the news flow. In many countries, including the United States, anything that might negatively affect the morale of the troops and the civilians at home was kept out of the newspapers.

However, Spain was neutral in the war and had no such censors. So, the Spanish press reported honestly on the influenza’s spread and the number of deaths in its country, giving the world the impression that it must have originated there. Hence the misnomer, the Spanish Flu.

The media continues to manipulate us. Just look at coverage over the use of masks.

The press writes with equal hysteria that masks are useless. “Do not buy masks,” they preach.

Then suddenly, everyone must wear a mask everywhere they go at all times. Each position is reported with equal conviction. Now, the New England Journal of Medicine tells us, "The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.... Expanded masking protocols’ greatest contribution may be to reduce the transmission of anxiety, over and above whatever role they may play in reducing transmission of Covid-19." Good to know.

Masks were nearly as controversial in 1918 as they are today. San Francisco was one of the first to make masks mandatory, implementing a publicity campaign to secure compliance, complete with the jingo, "Obey the laws, and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws." The Red Cross shamed those who refused to wear a mask by calling them “slackers,” which today sounds like a quaint insult reserved for adult children who live in their parents’ basements. But at the time, it was a derogatory term reserved for those who participated in unpatriotic activities, such as dodging the draft or refusing to buy war bonds. Newspapers made sure to publish names of such people on “slacker lists.”

Wearing a mask was deemed patriotic. So, people were encouraged to make their masks a fashion statement. An October 1918, a Seattle Daily Times headline read, “In October 1918, “Influenza Veils Set New Fashion: Seattle Women Wearing Fine Mesh with Chiffon Border to Ward Off Malady.” In Phoenix, people poked holes in their masks so that they could smoke a cigarette, much like the masks in today’s social media posts with a hole so the wearer can sip wine while doing their part for the greater good.

Today we might have the Anti-Lockdown protestors, who have been called far worse than slackers, but in 1918, they had the Anti-Mask League, who protested that masks were useless. One of their chief complaints was hypocrisy. This should be no surprise to those of us who were lectured to as to why the mayor of Chicago was entitled to get a haircut when the rest of the city was forbidden (“I’m on TV,” she explained. “I have to look good!”). Or the married Imperial College computer modeler responsible for igniting the hysteria by predicting over two million would die in the United States alone who broke stay-at-home orders to meet with his married mistress. Or the TV personality reporting in a self-quarantine from his basement after testing positive, and scolding everyone else to “stay-home, save-lives,” only to, when the cameras are off, venture out and about with his family, sans mask.

In a 1918 San Francisco scandal, a photographer caught multiple supervisors, a congressman, a judge, a Navy rear-admiral, the city’s health officer, and the mayor at a boxing match, all without masks. Slackers accused politicians of overextending their powers, and the Anti-Mask League urged people to “not submit to the domination of a few politicians and political doctors.”

But the political overreach in 1918 wasn’t nearly as widespread as it has been today, possibly because 55% of the population lived in rural areas where contagion wasn’t as severe, and enforcement was difficult. As of 2018, only 17% of Americans live in rural areas.

South Dakota schools were shut down for six weeks in October 1918, and that includes Cresbard. But other than that, life looks to be pretty much the same. Clara attends plays and concerts, organizes socials for the war effort, sews doilies for her hope chest. She goes to town with her friends to hang out.

Perhaps it is the move to the city that has changed us.

Americans seem to have increased their willingness to let politicians take control of bigger and bigger portions of their lives. This allowed countless politicians to unhesitatingly use the Covid-19 pandemic as a power grab, ordering people to remain at home and businesses to close down, and literally telling us who is essential and who is not, with shockingly little pushback.

This tendency of more and more people to look to the government for guidance seems to have resulted in a population no longer satisfied in living their lives as individuals. Instead, these same people want to control the rest of us, deputizing themselves as certified arms of government. They are egged on by politicians who encourage them to shut down and shame viewpoints that counter the currently sanctioned narrative.

They are armed with cell phones and instructed that it is their duty to report their neighbors, their friends, their fellow citizens who are caught not abiding by the draconian clampdowns on people’s lives. They film a mom playing with her daughter in the park. They scream at two children on a playdate in their front yard. They call special phone lines to report a gathering in a home where people aren’t social distancing. They fill social media news feeds with relentless shaming and virtue signaling. They are warriors of cancel culture; victory is getting a stranger fired or unfriending a lifelong friend.

In 1918, the government issued guidance and orders as it does today. In 1918, people mostly continued to live their lives. Today, the government has an army across the land doing its bidding, voluntarily. This army is convinced that you as an individual have no right to question experts who have repeatedly proven that they are political, they make mistakes, they flat-out lie, and they often simply do not know. They are convinced you have no right to demand politicians abide by the Constitution. Convinced that you cannot make decisions regarding what is best for your life. Convinced that anyone who sees differently should be destroyed.

Some predict that a mass exodus from the big cities will follow this pandemic and the unwillingness of mayors to stop the riots, looting, and destruction happening across the country. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe with a little space, people can remember that they have a right to their own lives.

Vickie Oddino


Vickie Oddino

Vickie Oddino joins The Atlas Society after a career as a college English professor in Los Angeles, specializing in composition and business writing. She is also a writer herself, having published articles in a variety of publications, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. She was also a columnist for five years for LA Family magazine. She is currently working on a book about the 1918 influenza pandemic in South Dakota. She recently left California and relocated to downtown Chicago, where she spends her free time exploring with her camera, travelling, and, of course, writing.

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