The first pandemic recommendations date back to the 1918 “Spanish Flu.”
A pandemic is under way in the United States. Political leaders and medical officials are taking dramatic action in order to halt the spread of the virus, which is a worldwide problem. They are recommending changes in our behavior, urging us to wash our hands often, avoid crowds, cover our coughs and sneezes and not touch our faces. Citizens are urged to stay at home as much as possible, which is much easier to accomplish because movie theaters, restaurants and other businesses are being shuttered and synagogues are limiting services. People are really worried. No one knows how long the virus will be active.
All those recommendations came in 1918. The world was facing the worst pandemic it had ever experienced, before or since. The “Spanish Flu” affected nations around the globe.
Sounds a lot like the coronavirus that we are dealing with today, doesn’t it?
To be sure, as I write this column, there are many unknowns. How long will the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic last? How many will be infected? How many of our friends and family might become ill, or worse, die? What will be the impact on our economy?
Historians and archivists are very good at predicting the past. I can tell you with a great measure of certainty about prior historical events. For example, yes, the Union won the American Civil War and, yes, America was on the winning side in World Wars I and II.
But colleagues in my profession can no more predict the future than any of our neighbors. Of course, not knowing the full impact of the virus is worrisome, a bit scary. However, a study of history reveals one more important lesson: Panicking is of no value … ever.
What matters is our support for each other. And this is something Metro Detroit’s Jewish community has practiced since the first Jews settled in the state.
How it Got its Name
The “Spanish Flu,” or the 1918 flu pandemic, lasted for nearly three years, from January 1918 to December 1920. Scientists have studied it ever since. Evidence points to the virus originating in China, like today’s COVID-19, but no one can say with certainty where the 1918 flu began.
Colloquially, the 1918 flu pandemic was known as the Spanish Flu because of intense media coverage from Spain, including King Alfonso XIII, who contracted the illness in 1918. The flu was ravaging Allied Armies in Europe at that time, but military censors would not allow reporting on the effects of the flu. Spain was not involved in the war and, therefore, reports from Spain were not censored. This left an impression that Spain was at the epicenter of the pandemic; hence, the origins of the moniker “Spanish Flu.”
The effects of the flu were immense. More U.S. soldiers died from the flu than in battle during WWI, which ended in November 1918. When in the trenches, soldiers lived in notoriously unsanitary conditions. Even when they were not on the front lines, they lived and traveled in extremely overcrowded, unhygienic quarters. It was no better if they were in overwhelmed hospitals. In short, they lived in prefect conditions for spreading the virus.
When millions of men and women returned to their home nations, they brought the virus with them. Soon, everyone was dealing with conditions like we are dealing with now, only much worse. Millions around the world perished, making it the worse global pandemic in history.
Then and Now
Several major differences exist between 1918 and 2020. First, scientific understanding of the flu, as well as medical weapons to combat the virus, were rudimentary, at best, in 1918. Doctors were desperate to find cures. Evidence suggests there were unnecessary deaths due to the overuse of aspirin, leading to aspirin poisoning. Aspirin was and is considered a “wonder drug,” but too much of a good thing is not good.
A lot has changed in the last hundred years. Unlike 1918, scientists today quickly isolated COVID-19 and are now working on vaccines and treatments.
Moreover, as a society, we are taking measures to ensure our safety.
And, although it may seem like ancient history, we have also had some recent experience dealing with serious viruses. Remember the Swine Flu in 2009? Or Avian Flu in the 1990s? Or just the common flu every year?
I found a number of articles about the Spanish Flu among the pages of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, regarding how the Jewish community dealt with the pandemic.
There were guidelines in the Oct. 18 and Oct. 25 issues of the Chronicle that resemble the warnings we see in the media today: Avoid crowds and wash your hands; don’t put your fingers in your mouth; don’t spit; don’t “cough in people’s faces”; and, above all, don’t panic.
The Nov. 1, 1918, issue has a front-page article about the Herman Korlick Influenza Hospital, a “masked interview” by reporter Kate Friedmann. The hospital arose out of the crisis and was operated by courageous doctors and nurses. Friedmann was brave enough to report from the inside of the Korlick for the Chronicle.
There are also stories of human compassion and dedication. A story in the Oct. 11 issue of the Chronicle cites Dr. J. M. Berris of Detroit traveling to Boston to help fight the “Spanish Grippe” in that city. The East Coast, the arrival site for many soldiers returning from Europe, was especially hard hit by the flu.
I think I will be safe if I make one more prediction. Whether 100 years ago or today, handling this current pandemic is about pulling together as a community and being compassionate. History does indeed predict that Detroit Jews will do just that.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.