Don't repeat the mistakes of 1918

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Our world has been brought to a standstill by something so tiny, it’s invisible – a virus.

COVID-19 began in Wuhan, China, possibly at an unsanitary market which sold wild animals like bats. This virus is between 10 and 35 times more deadly than the seasonal flu, and twice as contagious.

As it spread from China, cases rose and the stock market slid. Some minimized the threat by claiming media coverage was politically motivated. But eventually, public officials took dramatic steps to contain the virus. In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo prudently closed public schools and dine-in restaurants and bars. To some, the media coverage seems alarmist and restrictions feel intrusive, but based on Rhode Island’s experience during the Spanish influenza pandemic, it is justified.

The influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the United States, and over 2,000 in Rhode Island.

This is how it began for Rhode Island. On Aug. 27, 1918, influenza was reported among sailors in Boston. By Sept. 8, 1918, sailors in Newport had contracted the virus. From sailors, it spread to civilians.

On Sept. 14, 1918, Providence Health Superintendent Charles Chapin, a man of international renown, indicated that Spanish influenza had reached Providence and warned of an impending epidemic. However, Chapin stated: “There is not much that can be done to avoid the Spanish Influenza.” Chapin thought there was “no such thing as an effective quarantine in pandemic influenza” and believed that only “when the susceptible material is used up the disease will stop.” Over the next 10 days, as the epidemic somewhat subsided in the military, the Providence Journal printed headlines such as “SPANISH INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC ON WANE” and “FEWER INFLUENZA CASES REPORTED.”

Life went on as usual. The Democratic and Republican parties held their state conventions. Although more civilians were beginning to die of influenza, by Sept. 26, 1918, the Providence Journal reported “no steps have been taken in this State drastically to deal with the situation as has been found necessary in Massachusetts.”

On Sept. 27, 1918, the Providence Journal in a sub-headline indicated: “SITUATION HERE NOT SERIOUS.” However, later that day, the State Board of Health voted to request Gov. Robert Beeckman issue a proclamation ordering all theatres, movie cinemas, and dance halls closed. But Chapin opposed closing schools and public places. Chapin stated, “I do not believe it will accomplish the purpose intended. I believe the epidemic must run its course. If we had planned to close public places, it should have been done two or three weeks ago.”

On Sept. 28, 1918, the Providence Journal in a sub-headline indicated: “Situation at Present Does Not Appear Serious.” Later that day, after conferring with representatives of theatres and movie cinemas, Beeckman decided it was unnecessary to close them. The next day, 3,000 people crowded into a theatre for a Liberty Loan rally to buy bonds for the First World War. On Sept. 30, 1918, with deaths increasing, the Providence Journal reported that “those in a position to know feel that with continued good weather the situation will improve rather than grow worse.”

Instead, it got worse, much worse. On Oct. 4, 1918, as the daily death toll passed 40, with over 1,000 new cases, and hospitals overwhelmed, the Providence Board of Aldermen closed schools, theatres, movie cinemas, and dance halls. Events were canceled. Even the Liberty Loan Parade was cancelled.

On Oct. 10, 1918, the day the cancellation was reported in the Providence Journal, its editorial board published an editorial entitled: “No Need of an Influenza Panic.” It stated: “There is no need of a panic over the influenza epidemic. The disease is nothing new … The man or woman who lives a rational, careful life and refuses to worry is far less likely than otherwise to ‘catch’ it … What are ordinarily called ‘precautions’ are good, but in a sense they are negative. We need to arm ourselves positively by building up our bodies-and our minds.”

Meanwhile, next to this editorial, which aimed to ease fears, was a statement which had been published day after day since July 6, 1917, in order inflame war fever. It read: “Every German or Austrian in the United States, unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a spy … We are at war with the most merciless and inhuman nation in the world. Hundreds of thousands of its people in this country want to see America humiliated, and beaten to her knees, and they are doing, and will do, everything in their power to bring this about. Take nothing for granted.”

With restrictions in place, the number of new cases slid downward. By Oct. 15, 1918, most health authorities believed that the “Spanish influenza in Rhode Island has reached its height and is now on the wane.” Life began to revert to the way it was before. For instance, on Oct. 17, 1918, 10,000 people attended a meeting where the Rev. Billy Sunday praised God and raised funds for the war by selling bonds while former President Theodore Roosevelt berated Germany and declared that if immigrants “won’t learn English, in say, five years, send them back.”

The number of new cases dwindled. On Oct. 25, 1918, the Providence Board of Aldermen lifted its ban and children returned to school. A resurgence in influenza occurred in December 1918 and early 1919, but it did not reach near the levels of October 1918. By Feb. 9, 1919, for the first time in five months, there were no deaths from influenza in Providence. It was over.

What happened in Rhode Island during the influenza pandemic mirrored what occurred in other communities. Two lessons can be learned from this tragedy. First, be honest with the public. Tell the truth, the whole truth. In “The Great Influenza,” historian John Barry wrote that: “The media and public officials helped create the terror-not by exaggerating the disease but by minimizing it.” He explained: “As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. They terrified by making little of it … People could not trust what they read. Uncertainly follows distrust, fear follows uncertainty, and under conditions such as these, terror follows fear.”

Second, take early drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus. Shutdown, lockdown. In 2007, the Journal of American Medical Association published a study of the experiences of 43 large cities in the United States during the influenza pandemic. The study showed that: “Overall, cities that implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions earlier” – such as school closure, public gathering bans, and isolation and quarantine –“experienced associated delays in the time to peak mortality, reductions in the magnitude of the peak mortality, and decreases in the total mortality burden.” It also concluded that: “Late interventions, regardless of their duration or permutation of use, almost always were associated with worse outcomes.”

History repeats itself, but it does not have to. Let us learn from the mistakes from 1918. God willing, we will all survive to live life the way we did before all this began.

Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.

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