Historian Compares and Contrasts 1918 Killer Flu to Coronavirus Pandemic

By Tom McLaughlin

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread exponentially around the globe, it is often compared to the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States alone.

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States alone.

There are similarities and differences of the 1918 “killer flu,” as well as lessons to be learned from that historic pandemic, says Rutgers University–Camden researcher Janet Golden.

However, says the professor emerita of history, it remains to be seen whether we will learn from past mistakes.

Golden explains that the 1918 influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory diseases that spread through close contact. The 1918 influenza was deadliest among those ages 20 to 40 and in good health, while it appears that the COVID-19 virus is deadliest among those 60 and over or with any serious underlying medical conditions. However, she cautions, the demographics won’t be fully known until the end of the pandemic.

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the 1918 flu pandemic occurred during World War I, with the U.S. government and population focused on the war. Physicians and nurses were in short supply at home because so many were overseas at base hospitals in France and elsewhere.

Then, just as now, says Golden, the 1918 pandemic saw social-distancing efforts, such as the closing of schools, places of amusement, and other popular gathering places.

In an unfortunately all-too-familiar sight, she says, the cases mounted quickly, businesses and schools were ordered closed, supplies were limited, and medical personnel were left to combat the disease with inadequate defenses.

These devastating effects were felt deeply in Philadelphia, notes Golden, citing the master’s thesis of a former Rutgers–Camden graduate student, Jeff Anderson, which has since been cited by countless other scholars and popular historians. In his 2000 paper, Anderson writes:

The first (reported) death in Philadelphia during the 1918 pandemic was at the Naval Yard on Sept. 11, 1918, and the number of stricken military personnel quickly grew. Insufficient attention was paid. The United States was in the throes of the Great War, and the Kaiser, not the flu, was on the minds of Philadelphians. Some saw the flu as a German plot.

By Sept. 23, there were 600 cases of influenza among the city’s military personnel and by the 28th there were over 500 cases among the city’s civilian population. During that same week, 149 civilians succumbed. Later, on a single day in October 1918, there were 759 flu deaths in Philadelphia.

“Then, just as now, there were social-distancing efforts, such as the closing of schools, places of amusement, and other popular gathering places,” says Golden.

The similarities don’t end there, she continues, noting that the U.S. government’s response to the 1918 pandemic showed a gap between federal, state, and local authorities.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher believes that the federal government should use currently unused laws to mandate the production of equipment and oversee logistics.

“The same gaps now appear again, but in this case, it is because the federal government has been slow to respond to the crisis, despite the considerable warnings,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

As a U.S. citizen first, says Golden, she believes strongly that the federal government should shift resources to combat the pandemic and use currently unused laws – such as the Defense Production Act, touted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo – to mandate the production of equipment and oversee logistics.

Golden maintains that only time will tell if this global pandemic – and, ultimately, its outcome – will be different than those experienced in the past. However, she notes, humankind “now lives in an age of instant communication, for good or ill,” with different medical and public health resources available.

“We will see how quickly a vaccine can be developed, rigorously tested, and dispensed,” she says. “Experts say that it will take at least 18 months to ensure the efficacy and safety of a vaccine. We will see if the fiscal infrastructure develops to ensure that everyone gets the needed tests, treatment, and recovery resources.”

When the pandemic does end, she adds, the U.S. government’s next test will be just beginning.

“We will see how the government responds to the need to restart economic growth,” says Golden, “as we appear to be entering a downturn occurring far faster than the one we experienced during the Great Depression.”

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