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The lessons of 1918: OSU experts note the perils of the pandemics

The lessons of 1918: OSU experts note the perils of the pandemics

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The majority of the deaths happened in the fall. 

“There was a second wave,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols who has spent years studying the pandemic of 1918 and now teaches courses on it at Oregon State University, where he is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts.

“As a historian we hope that our work is important and has value,” he said. “But you don’t expect it to be so current.”

But Nichols’ work studying government response and social reaction to the Spanish Flu stopped being a thing of the past and became suddenly, vibrantly relevant again on Jan. 21, 2020.

That day, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. after the virus had been circling the globe, racking up death tolls across China before traveling to Europe. A man in Washington state, who had recently visited the Chinese province where it all started had contracted the illness. By the beginning of March, there were 26 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. A month later, 10,986 deaths. By the first week in May, 70,000. On Friday, 78,198. 

“One thing that’s fascinating is the current response in the U.S. and the pushback we see mirrors what happened in the 1918,” Nichols said of the protests against social distancing and lack of comprehensive information being released by the government. 

“It astounds me,” he said, “When they say, ‘This has never happened’ or ‘There’s no way we could have known.’ Come look at my bookshelves. This has happened before.”

But if echoed warnings from the past joined the knowledge that the coronavirus was coming across the ocean, why is so much of history repeating itself? And what can we learn from the sacrifices made by the generation before the greatest generation during the pandemic of 1918?

Then and now

On May 2, hundreds of people draped in American Flags marched at the Capitol in Salem. The demonstrators were part of the Re-open Oregon movement. They were hoping to convince Gov. Kate Brown to allow businesses to serve customers again after just over a month of adhering to social distancing standards. 

Some wore masks. Others, did not. 

“Once the closures were serious in 1918,” Nichols said, “within a few weeks you were getting pushback saying that theaters and billiard halls needed to be open. We have very good data on this because it was the first modern pandemic. We have train schedules and newspaper articles and all sorts of data.”

Brown is set to re-open parts of Oregon this Friday. Those regions that can prove they have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), can meet social distancing requirements and have very little transmission within the area, can begin to see business doors open again. Restaurants and bars must place tables six feet apart, employees will have to wear masks and customers, Brown said, should as well. 

The state calls it Phase One which will be followed by Phase Two and Phase Three—but social distancing is expected to last for months. 

Festivals and fairs have been canceled and sports games with fans, Brown said, aren’t likely to return until September. 

If regions can keep their hospitalization rates down for 21 days, they can enter Phase Two. 

“People were slow to take action,” Nichols said of 1918. “And because of that, more people died and suffered. You can track this by cities. Take St. Louis for example. It took early action. Philadelphia held the biggest parade in the city’s history to that date and within weeks they had 700 people dying a day and couldn’t keep up with the body collection.

“In the second wave, health officials said if you take the proper precautions, the risks are low. But wait two weeks and you can see their hospitals became overwhelmed.” 

The past doesn’t just hold warnings. According to Nichols, we’ve been living with COVID-19 long enough now to see stark, obvious similarities. 

States that had mandatory mask laws fared better than those that did not. The government, Nichols said, told people it was a “three-day flu” and like now, there was a desire to re-open the country for the sake of the economy. 

“The experience in 1918-1919 was that there’s no such thing as business as usual in a pandemic," Nichols said. "The city of Denver re-opens gradually as deaths were going down and on Nov. 11, it’s Armistice Day and everyone comes out and celebrates. Boom. Disease and death go skyrocketing up.”

Fighting a war

“They keep saying it’s like fighting a war,” Nichols said of public health and governmental officials. 

But in 1918, the United States was fighting a war—a World War—in the middle of the pandemic.

We were also fighting a war in 1941 when Ruth Lennox was queen. 

Lennox had just graduated from high school when she was anointed Strawberry Festival Queen in Lebanon. 

It was the last Strawberry Festival for four years, as men went off to war and efforts went into "victory gardens" and rationing. It was a time, she said, of sacrifice. 

“People did sacrifice,” Nichols said of 1918. “When it was the Spanish Flu and the government could say, ‘The Spanish Flu is hurting our war effort,’ it helped people sacrifice. But now, we don’t have that. Since 9/11 we have an anti-terror mindset. We haven’t been asked to collectively sacrifice for many generations.”

Lennox, now a resident of Willamette Manor in Lebanon, is the longest reigning queen in the Strawberry Festival’s history—thanks to the war. After she was crowned in 1941, the festival was canceled in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. 

In fact, it was the last time the festival had been canceled. Until 2020. 

“After careful consideration for the welfare of the public and the impact COVID-19 continues to have on our city and its residents, the 2020 Lebanon Strawberry Festival is canceled,” an announcement from the event’s board read on April 20. 

It marked the second time in the festival’s 111-year history that the streets of Lebanon wouldn’t  be strawberry-filled over a long weekend. 

“I was disappointed,” Lennox said. “It was very sai that the festival was canceled, but you understand.” 

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Health beliefs

Some of the demonstrators in Salem in early May didn’t wear masks despite suggestions from health officials that they cut the transmission of COVID-19. 

And as decisions are being made about re-opening the state and the country, two distinct sides have formed: those who want to re-open and those who want to wait. The debates is intense. 

“It’s a great time to remember that often, our emotions change how we thing about things,” said Regan Gurung, the director of general psychology in the College of Liberal Arts at OSU. 

According to Gurung, the health belief model dictates our response to threats to our health. 

“It says your behavior is going to relate to a range of beliefs that you have about the results of that behavior,” he said. “Specifically, the belief of how susceptible you are is a factor, your belief in how severe the illness is and your general belief in how healthy you are.”

If an individual does not believe they are likely to catch COVID-19, they are less likely to follow social distancing, for example. 

“This belief is about the effectiveness of behavior and the costs,” Gurung said. “I think the costs, for many of the protests, the reality for many is that the cost is pretty significant. They can’t pay rent or they may lose their business.”

Those beliefs translate into whether individuals may choose to wear a mask and, according to Gurung, for some it means attempting to force others not to wear them either. 

“If you believe people are going overboard, that’s your belief. Let’s be clear, it’s against the science, but if you don’t believe or know the science, you are likely to try to get others not to do it as well,” he said. “If you see others doing it, that’s a social norm. The more people do it, it becomes normative for you to do it. If you can change the norm to not doing it, it supports your case.” 

And while Gurung said there is now enough data to prove social distancing is effective in slowing the spread of the virus, we need to do more to engage with those who may not believe the science. 

Step one, he said, is to make the reasons for quarantining and/or social distancing clear. 

“We have to make the benefits clear and specific,” he said. “We also need to hear people. For example, the real reason for quarantining is contagion, you can be a silent spreader, etc. But then there is a perceived need which is that the government is trying to control us. They say, ‘you’re a puppet.’ Well no, actually I don’t want to kill you by spreading this disease. We need to hear people out and counter with factual information.”

Getting factual information, though, can sometimes be more difficult than it was in 1918, thanks to social media. 

Online platforms are ripe with memes and fictional sources citing faux science, making it difficult, Gurung said, to decipher what is real. 

“You have to look at what is confirming your bias,” he said. “There’s so much on social media that it’s easy to be biased. There used to be a simple rule. Ask yourself, ‘Is this a fact? Is it an interpretation of a fact, or is it an opinion? Right now the line between these things is blurred.” 

Step two, he said, is compassion. 

“It’s easy for people to look at protesters and feel negatively about them,” he said. “But I think it helps to understand that individuals are under stress. Fear and anxiety causes people to think differently and that’s what we’re seeing.” 

What now?

Social distancing in Oregon will last for months. Even as the state enters Phase One, aspects of life before COVID-19 will not return just yet. 

In preparing a draft plan for the governor on the county’s re-opening, Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker said he would like the county’s recreational facilities to open again, plus medical practices and some businesses. 

“That doesn't mean you go camping and decide to play basketball and use someone else's basketball and play four on four," he said, adding that he would still like to see just one person from a family heading to the grocery store to limit exposure. 

And while local and state officials support a slow re-open it means working from home, learning from home and staying, mostly, at home is starting to take its toll. 

“Our hormones are secreting differently now,” Gurung said. “Experts will say keep a routine, but it is deeper than that.”

According to Gurung, our bodies release chemicals on a schedule dictated by our sleeping and eating habits. As children work through home schooling, they may be staying up later and parents working from home may be waking earlier. Everyone, he said, may be eating differently and on a different schedule. 

“When we do that, we are throwing our body rhythm out of whack,” he said. “Try to eat and sleep at the same time.” 

The advice, he said, won’t erase the disappointment of canceled traditions or economic strain but will help ease the pressure. 

 As will coming to terms with our new reality, Nichols said. 

 “Closures are likely to go on for quite awhile. I think people need to face up to that fact,” he said. “Then, like in the past, figure out ways around that. They played football but they didn’t have fans."

Nichols noted that the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup was not awarded in 1919 because the series was canceled after five games "because too many players had the flu. That’s the reality. So, maybe we’re able to see games with no fans. It’s not going to look like it did before.” 

There are a lot of questions surrounding COVID-19, many of which, Nichols said circulated during the pandemic of 1918. 

“We have individual rights but it ignores the collective part of democracy,” he said. “Sure, you’re willing to take the risk but that doesn’t mean you won’t be a carrier and hurt someone else. Where do your rights end and mine begin? It’s a conundrum, but the thing that keeps me up at night is that second wave. It’s the lessons we’re not learning right now that put us at a huge disadvantage when the second wave comes.” 



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