What Can We Learn From the 1918 Pandemic?

What Can We Learn From the 1918 Pandemic?


The new disease, public officials said as people began to fall ill with unfamiliar symptoms, was “trifling” and “nothing to worry about provided ordinary precautions were taken.” It was just the flu. In Spain, one newspaper said all that people needed to overcome it was “three days’ bed rest and a medicine cabinet.” In the United States, as cases began to multiply, people were told that their government was working “to confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful.” But that did not happen. Instead, it spread with astonishing rapidity from country to country, continent to continent. Medical

facilities were overwhelmed. At Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, “people were dying in beds, on stretchers and in the corridors. In the pediatric wards, children were packed three to a bed.” Doctors and nurses were working virtually around the clock. “We didn’t have time to treat them,” said one. “We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure.”

Governments, medical services, and ordinary citizens were unprepared. Famous people began to fall ill; the British prime minister was so badly affected that reports said it was “touch and go” whether he would live or die. Special hospitals were hurriedly constructed to deal with the extra burden of thousands upon thousands of sick and dying patients. In the morgues, bodies were stacked one on top of another, identified only by tags tied to their left feet. The families of victims resorted to stealing coffins, so great was the shortage caused by the massive rise in demand.

Medical opinion was uncertain in the face of the new disease. Only as it spread did a better understanding of it develop, and in the meantime, all sorts of dangerous home remedies were tried, from gargling with disinfectant solution to ingesting kerosene administered on a lump of sugar. A more agreeable way of disinfecting the digestive tract, recommended by some, was to down several straight whiskeys or tumblers of gin. One young man in North Carolina reported wearing a bag of asafetida around his neck. “People thought the smell would kill germs,” he wrote. “So we all wore a bag of asafetida and smelled like rotten flesh.”

In some cities, including New York, schools and theaters remained open, and officials continued to play down the seriousness of the situation. When medical authorities, concluding that the disease was spread by droplet infection through coughing and sneezing, recommended the wearing of face masks, residents of San Francisco were particularly resistant: One downtown attorney in the city described an official order to wear a mask as “absolutely unconstitutional.” The police did their best to enforce the regulation. On occasion, they could go too far. One public health officer, according to a local newspaper report, drew his gun when a man refused to comply; the man “closed in on him and in the succeeding affray was shot in the arm and the leg” before being taken to a hospital, where he was arrested, while being treated for his wounds, for refusing to obey the officer’s order.

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