My grandparents survived the Spanish Flu epidemic in Philadelphia in 1918.
They didn’t talk about it much.
Some of that was probably because they were very young when it happened – my grandmother was just shy of five when the first case was diagnosed in that city in September of 1918, and my grandfather was about a year older – and some of it was just that’s what that generation was like. They had their stories that they liked to tell, but the hard ones didn’t come up very often. I don’t remember my grandmother ever discussing it with me. My grandfather would, though, every once in a while.
He had a child’s eye view of it, of course, but what he remembered about it most of all were the doors. On every block (he would have said “square,” which is a very Philadelphia sort of word for that) there was at least one door draped in black crepe paper to show that someone in the house had died.
White crepe paper for a child.
That was the thing he remembered most, that it was on every block. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the crepe paper, without some public memorial to the recently dead.
The Spanish Flu devastated Philadelphia. It was one of the hardest hit cities in North America, in large part because the city refused to take the preventative action they needed to take until it was too late to be helpful.
It was late in the Great War, for example, and the city wanted to hold a parade for returning veterans. Despite all the blinking warning lights, despite all the doctors literally demanding that the parade get canceled, they did. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded the streets, rubbing elbows, sharing germs. Three days later every one of the hospital beds in Philadelphia – a city rich in hospitals, then as now – was full. And then the body count began to rise.
More than 12,000 people died in Philadelphia from the Spanish Flu by the time the epidemic ended. Philadelphia authorities eventually took the actions they needed to take – closing schools, theaters, bars, churches, and other social gathering spaces, prohibiting large groups, and so on. The sorts of closures that are happening now in response to the coronavirus. But they did it too late.
And even then, there were people complaining that it was just a scare tactic. Just as there are now.
Ultimately the Spanish Flu would kill more people around the world than World War I did. It would kill more Americans than WWI did. Not many people remember that these days. Hell, not many people in the US remember World War I at all, other than the name and maybe some vague idea that there were trenches somewhere. We’re not a historically minded people.
And it will cost us. It already is costing us.
If you want to stop an epidemic, you need to do things before most people think you need to do things, because if you wait until the need is obvious it will be too late. You need to look like you’re overreacting, because the crisis hasn’t fully hit and if you do it right the crisis won’t fully hit and people will make fun of you for overreacting even though that was exactly what you needed to do in order to avoid the crisis in the first place.
Computer scientists call this the “the Y2K effect.”
Listen to the trained experts out there – the medical people who aren’t running for re-election and actually know what they’re talking about. Listen to the reports that are coming out of hard-hit areas like Italy. And do what they tell you to do. Stay home. Avoid large gatherings. All those things. Even just slowing down the rate of infections will make a huge difference in people surviving because that’s how you keep the health care system from getting overwhelmed.
As a historian I am all too aware that there are a lot of people in this world who are belligerently ignorant of the past and utterly, aggressively unwilling to learn from it. I’ve been pushing that boulder up the hill for more than a quarter of a century. We’re governed by those people now.
But you don’t have to be that stupid.
And you shouldn’t be.