Pandemic Then and Now – Spanish Flu versus COVID-19
As bad as it has been, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic has not been the worst in U-S history. That dubious title falls to the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic that spread across the world near the end of World War I. The war’s death toll of 16 million people pales in comparison to the “Great Influenza”. Estimates are that one-third of the world’s population contracted the Spanish Flu. Between are 65 to 70 million people perished from it worldwide and almost a quarter million in the United States. The number of deaths in Alabama is not certain. People died too quickly to count, the state was mainly rural and record keeping was not a mandate then. Newspaper accounts simply refer to the thousands who died in the state.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History recorded the remembrances of five Alabamians who survived that pandemic. At 100 years old in 2007 Agnes Gatlin described what she saw as a little girl, “Everybody in the neighborhood thought it was terrible and there was a lot of fear.” Garfield Johnson lived in Coffee County and was just starting school. He remembered hearing of complete families dying with nobody to bury them.
Had it not been for statewide lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, travel restrictions, mandated mask wearing; COVID-19 might well have surpassed the Spanish Flu as the worst pandemic. The world might be looking at nearly half a billion deaths from the Coronavirus had it not been for health safety precautions according today’s edition of a peer-reviewed analysis of the impact of health policies in the journal “Nature”.
7 million positive cases with 400,000 fatalities worldwide is where we stand now. “I hate to think of the consequences had the majority of the public not honored health requirements,” Alabama Hospitals Association President Dr. Donald Williamson stated when asked about the impact of precautions.
With some exceptions, predictions of hospitals nationwide being overrun by pandemic patients by-and-large never materialized. Hospital resources were stretched, and staffs challenged but these heroes of public health kept the tragedy from becoming unimaginable.
What makes the Spanish Flu different from COVID-19 is it was obvious when you had the flu. But COVID-19 can lurk inside a healthy body and be shared with those who the carrier comes in contact without either realizing it until it’s too late.
Sadly, many of the soldiers who survived the gas warfare and trenches of WWI lost their battle with the Spanish Flu when they returned home.
So many people were coming down with the Spanish Flu that gymnasiums, warehouses, and tents were converted to hospital wards where a shortage in doctors and nurses turned those facilities into early day hospices, where patients just went to die.
As COVID-19 spread rapidly the Army Corps of Engineers partnered with Alabama and other states to survey potential hospital overflow sites. Fortunately, even in hot spots like New York City and Los Angeles the ancillary facilities were only sparsely utilized.
During the shutdown due to the flu the Birmingham News told how only the undertakers seemed to be profiting from the influenza. Businesses, theaters, and restaurants were described as losing thousands of dollars on the shutdown. Sound familiar?
Then came the loosening of restrictions. After being pent up at home for weeks, Alabamians were ready to get out when Spanish Flu cases began to recede. Health officials were certain the worst was over, it was not. The Birmingham Age-Herald Newspaper described how, “Residents once again began flocking to the downtown shopping district,” in Birmingham. Business owners were elated to be open again and welcome customers.
Then, in the days after the WWI Peace Celebrations brought out large crowds the state began to experience an uptick in influenza cases. This lasted for several weeks, worse than the original outbreak. New infections began to back off again only to be followed by a third, milder wave of the pandemic.
We saw a quick jump in cases after the long Memorial Day weekend but that looks to be receding now. Yet health officials fear October or November may bring a second wave if there is no vaccine available by then. In an effort to mitigate more upticks in COVID-19 health officials are following some of the same advice that aided their counterparts in 1918-19 to end the Spanish Flu pandemic – avoid crowds, beware of people sneezing and coughing frequently wash hands and wear a mask.
As Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox recently asked, “If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your family and your community”