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April 23, 2020


My sister-in-law, Theo, sent me a series of photographs from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. I found them haunting. They were surprisingly similar to what we are going through now.

The effects of the 1918 Spanish flu were that “about 500 million people—one-third of the world’s population—became infected with the Spanish flu virus. About 675,000 Americans were among the 50 million people worldwide who died from the virus.” Those numbers from the CDC are staggering!

We have the opportunity to learn from what they did, right? They clearly understood the importance of social isolation, shutting down business, closing public places, the importance of handwashing and wearing masks. It was clear then and apparent now that staying apart works. If we stay apart we cannot spread the virus.

Since 1918 science has evolved and we have discovered the importance of antibodies, laboratory testing, monitoring, and the life-saving benefits of vaccines. Those are advances that will help us recover from this pandemic.

And then there is what they did wrong; what have we learned from their mistakes?

“People started to ignore social distancing rules during the 1918 pandemic, leading to a second wave of infections that killed more people than all of World War I.”

Social distancing has shown itself to be an effective way of fighting the pandemic. In 1918 the problem occurred when people assumed they were beating the viral epidemic, which coincided with an escalation of their frustration with being isolated.

Their desire to socialize as well as their need to resume working cost them an astounding number of lives when the pandemic re-emerged for the second wave.

“Will the lifting of social distancing measures too soon lead to or exacerbate a second wave, perhaps worse than the first, as occurred in 1918?”

People want to get back to work. No one can argue with that, but that need has to be examined from a larger perspective. Almost no one is working and those who are—essential workers—are not just working, but they are risking their lives and the lives of others in order to take care of our essential needs.

If we want to open the country because we are tired of living in isolation, then we already know the results of that experiment; we saw it during the Spanish flu of 1918.

On the other hand, if what we are looking for is an income to pay our bills, we have to weigh how we do that against the cost of spreading the virus and taking more lives. It is not tolerable for us to pretend that opening the country early won’t cause a second wave; we’ve already seen it happen.

We need to find ways to generate money while we stay isolated. The government has increased unemployment insurance and passed bills releasing more than two trillion dollars in aid. This helps but it isn’t enough. I don’t know the solution. I’ve thought about imposing a moratorium on our debt for the next few months, giving us some relief while we thwart this virus and come up with the testing and medications we need to treat and give us the immunity we need to get back to work while we develop the needed vaccine.

I think Nancy Bristow, a history professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, said it perfectly:

"In 1918, we applied social distancing but didn't know that it worked or not; now we know. It's very inconvenient, but it is clearly the easiest thing, it's a way that every human being can be involved and can participate in fighting this virus, and the outcomes will be positive. " (NPR interview) 

The following images are from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. I find them poignant and they make me think that a picture is really worth a thousand words.


"I had a little bird

And its name was Enza

I opened the window

and in-flu-enza." 

 1918 limerick


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