Governor Mike DeWine mentioned five weeks ago – which seems like five months ago – using The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry to guide Ohio’s response to COVID-19. My interest piqued, I googled my way through comparisons and contrasts of measures taken during the pandemics of 1918 and 2020.
That response began when the governor and the health director issued orders early in March to ban spectators from the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, slated to involve 18,000 athletes and 200,000 visitors. Their decision stemmed from the story of divergent paths taken by two American cities almost one hundred years earlier.
As the Spanish influenza whipped across America in early autumn of 1918, plans continued for a fourth Liberty Loan drive to support Allied efforts during World War I. Despite cancellation advice from medical experts fearing mass contagion from a flu outbreak at nearby military camps, organizers nevertheless entertained 200,000 Philadelphians with a massive parade of marching bands, floats, and military units. The eventual death toll in the City of Brotherly Love: 12,000. In direct contrast, officials in St. Louis quarantined military barracks and rigorously banned public gatherings. There were no patriotic parades in the Gateway to the West, where the death toll was capped at 700.
As we added “social distancing” to our national vocabulary, Ohio’s governor spent two weeks methodically closing schools, restaurants, recreational venues, non-essential businesses, and culminated with stay-at-home orders issued on March 23.
Similar bans on mass gatherings were instituted in 1918 “to prevent the spread of Spanish Influenza: all Schools, Churches, Theatres, Moving Picture Halls and other places of amusements are to be closed until further notice.” Indeed, pool rooms in Mechanicsburg were closed because of “thought that the influenza has spread in a certain extent from them.” In Alabama: “Health authorities have recommended that persons refrain from kissing.”
While Ohio schools have been closed for a month, my teacher and student relatives elsewhere are all doing the school thing at home, too. For some families, the newness wore off quickly. Others have embraced the situation and make it work most days. Teachers on Zoom, work packets, and special projects based on website offerings form lesson plans nowadays. Although I worry about students not engaged in educational pursuit, this change of pace with more choice and no test stress might be a positive interlude for our kids – even if schools do not reopen until fall. My favorite innovation: teacher caravans driving/honking past their students’ homes – and a kid caravan descending upon the neighborhood of a beloved teacher. A top-notch idea posted on Facebook: “How about using this time to teach them how to cook, check the oil in the car, do laundry, sew on a button, balance a checkbook?” One dad I know is helping his sons learn to write cursive, and a 9-year-old great-nephew of mine, always super busy with team sports, finally learned to ride a bike last week!
It was a mixed bag with school closings during the 1918 pandemic. School administrators and health departments watched student attendance, closing schools when certain absenteeism rates were reached. I found just one reference to a few private schools continuing lessons via correspondence courses.
Although some church congregations in the country have caused concern and controversy by meeting as usual, Governor DeWine maintains it is not his intention to force houses of worship to close. Most churches, however, have chosen any number of alternative outreach programs to provide worship opportunities for their parishioners.
Most churches also suspended services to comply with government orders during the Spanish influenza. Ministers urged people to worship at home in small groups “as was sometimes done in the days of the apostles.” One church in Nashville did not close but offered their building as a temporary hospital with other congregations providing human and financial aid to feed and nurse the poor.
One of the most difficult situations of our 21st century pandemic has been, to quote Governor DeWine, the “protection of our protectors,”: adequate testing and equipment for hospital staffs and first responders.
Nursing forces in 1918 had been depleted by the war, shortages keenly felt as hospitals filled to capacity. The archbishop in Philadelphia called on nuns to leave their convents to aid the sick and dying. Two thousand sisters, with little experience and no medical training, volunteered for 12-hour shifts. Wearing white gowns and gauze masks, they washed linens and served soup. They brought blankets and comfort to hallucinating patients and visited private homes. The nuns, 23 of whom themselves died, demonstrated charity and self-sacrifice in serving the underserved: immigrants, all ethnicities, orphans, the destitute, the homeless.
All across the country, folks are turning out home-sewn face masks for anyone who needs them, just as 1918 Red Cross members and ladies’ aid societies sewed sheets and hospital gowns. Also, health organizations and advertisers in both eras have used slogans as call-to-action tactics. In 1918 there were “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases” posters and instructions from Lifebuoy soap to wash hands “before eating and when you come in from the street.” Currently, Nike urges: “Play inside, play for the world,” while Coca-Cola suggests: “Staying apart is the best way to unite the world.”
Personally, I hear my preferred mantra from Mike DeWine, Amy Acton, and Jon Husted each day during their 2 PM briefing: WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.