A Tale of Two Pandemics: Battling a Pandemic Then and Now | News
BENZONIA — Anti-mask protests, strife over school closures, and healthcare workers pushed to the brink of despair — these scenarios playing out today also plagued society during the great flu pandemic of 1918-1920.
A Benzie Academy online lecture presented by the Benzie Area Historical Society examines medical, cultural and political responses to the Spanish flu, revealing striking similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nonprofit’s director, Barb Mort, said there was hope in learning about the civilization that has endured previous pandemics.
“Our country has already risen to the challenge and crossed over to the other side,” she said.
The program can be consulted at any time from the Company website features historian and author Michael Nagle.
Nagle shared his research on the Spanish flu event along with news clippings, photos and other documents from the National Archives.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but you see the shadows of the past in the present,” he said.
Nagle, an instructor at West Shore Community College, reveals similarities between the two pandemics, including misinformation regarding the origins of the virus. In early 2020, some criticized China, blaming the country for the COVID-19 outbreak. Nagle says charges during World War I claimed that German spies brought the flu to American soil. He explained that evidence now suggests that the Spanish Flu had its origins at a military base in Kansas.
It was the deadliest epidemic of the 20th century. Experts estimate that a third of the world’s population has been infected.
“The flu spread like wildfire,” Nagle said.
The historian showed how, as the flu pandemic swept through populations, government agencies responded to the health crisis with restrictions and mandates. Archival documents from the time demonstrate that responses to the influenza pandemic reflect COVID-19 policies and protocols. Quarantines and social distancing were encouraged, and several cities issued mask mandates to reduce the flu. Some communities imposed fines or jail time for those who violated the warrants.
Michigan Governor Albert Sleeper issued a proclamation in October 1918 ordering the closure of theaters, churches, clubhouses, pool halls and all non-essential gatherings. Michigan communities had the power to make decisions about school closures. Historians say that school closures sparked debates over whether homes or schools offered students greater safety.
The protests mark public reactions during both periods of the pandemic. In March 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive closing Michigan businesses and non-essential operations and ordering non-essential workers to stay home. In May, armed protesters gathered outside the state capitol to condemn the orders.
Nagle says U.S. citizens have generally complied with Spanish flu restrictions. They generally considered obeying a patriotic act – until the end of the First World War. As in contemporary times, protesters claimed the restrictions violate constitutional rights.
Mavericks during the flu pandemic were called slacker and often shunned for failing to do what many considered a civic duty. Penalties for not masking included fines and even jail time in some communities. An anti-mask league formed as public resentment grew over the terms.
But there was a lighter side to masking, even in 1918. Like many citizens today who wore messages and decorations on their masks when COVID-10 required facial protection, Nagle says some during the pandemic flu have worn the mask to the fashion level.
The control of the COVID-19 pandemic has the advantage of the absence of vaccines and pharmaceuticals to treat and prevent the Spanish flu. The federal government’s August 2021 COVID vaccine mandate for the armed forces was not unprecedented. Nagle said the first vaccination warrant for military troops was issued by George Washington during the Revolutionary War to combat smallpox.
Today’s medical workers caring for patients in Northern Michigan are following in the footsteps of those who fought the Spanish Flu.
Conference audience member Jan Buck shared the story of her Elberta-based doctor grandfather who she says was a “horse and buggy doctor” during the period.
“He’s been on the road for two weeks straight tending to the people of Benzie County,” she said. “My grandmother was a nurse. She took care of the patients who came to the door.
Nagle highlighted the cost of caring for Spanish flu patients through a letter written by a nurse working at a military compound.
“Soldiers are dying by the dozens,” she wrote. After the death of an officer she cared for, she said, “I had to go to the nurses’ quarters and scream.
Another link between the two pandemics is the fact that they both span multiple waves.
Nagle says that after three waves, the flu pandemic “died off”. But it hasn’t completely disappeared. The Cleveland Clinic reports that genetic traces still exist.
An audience member shared that her mother was born during the flu pandemic. Her brother participated in Pfizer’s COVID vaccine trials.
“Blood tests showed that he had antibodies against the Spanish flu,” she reveals. “So I probably do too.”
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unknown, but Nagle believes communication is an essential tool in defeating it.
“If our message is consistent and precise, people appreciate it,” he said. “They want to know – and they want to know how they can help.”
Access the one-hour Great Pandemic Influenza presentation for free on the Benzie Area Historical Society website at https://benziemuseum.org/2022/01/03/4497/