A Look at the Influenza Pandemic (1918-1920), for Comparison

102 years ago, the United States, along with much of the world, was slowly descending into a state of terror. The devastating and bloody Great War was receding, but influenza was advancing.

The spread of the Spanish flu, as most people called it, looks very familiar. As people and governments struggled to get a handle on the disease, everyday life began to alter and new precautions became the norm.

As part of the response to the pandemic, the American Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington DC held a demonstration. Masked nurses picked up a patient on a stretcher and put him into an ambulance.

LOC. Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C.

 

LOC. Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C.

 

LOC. Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C.

 

Meanwhile, influenza deaths were rapidly escalating. In this photograph, workers from the canteen were bringing food to a family that was down with the flu. When they arrived, the mother had just died. Stories like these became increasingly frequent, terrifying the populace.

LOC. Canteen workers in Charlotte take food to a family down with the Flu.  

 

Stories began to saturate the newspapers, telling of the rapid spread of the virus, and imploring the public to self-isolate and wear masks.

San Francisco officials did not suggest ending church services but they did close the churches themselves, and held services outside. The dire predictions of Dr. Hutchinson stimulated further appeals to the public.

San Francisco Examiner, October 1918

 

San Francisco Examiner, October 1918

 

A month after the public officials pleaded with the public to wear masks, it was no longer optional. The Spanish flu eventually took 50,000,000 lives across the world, dwarfing the 17,000,000 deaths caused by four years of war.

Fresno paper conveys the order to the people: You must wear a mask

 

In January of 1920, influenza still seemed to be raging, according to this Cincinnati newspaper.

 

It must have felt like the pandemic would never stop.

But that year, the influenza plague officially came to an end. We know that, with far fewer resources and less knowledge, our predecessors survived. Our worldwide death toll today is 2% that of last century’s pandemic. So even though it feels like things haven’t changed much, we know that they have.

The really interesting question now is what life will be like post-pandemic. After the Spanish Flu came the Roaring Twenties. What will be next for us?

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