In keeping with our recent ‘thinking in time’ theme, specifically regarding Thanksgiving, it is worth taking a few moments and revisiting what happened during Christmas and the Christmas season in the U.S. during the 1918 flu pandemic. As is always the case, history does not specifically or identically repeat, but what happens during similar periods of time, especially when they were well documented at the time and we have access to those primary sources, is very important information for how to proceed in the present and plan for the future.
Things are definitely not exactly the same today as they were in 1918.
For instance, the first flu vaccine was still twenty years away in 1918. It was not until 1938 that Jonas Salk, who would also develop the polio vaccine, and Thomas Francis developed the first flu vaccine. This was the result of several years of work that was only possible because it was determined in 1933 that the flu was caused by a virus, not by a bacteria! We have no such lag this time.
COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus – SARS-COV2 – and coronaviruses have been well studied; how they work/infect people is well understood. So while COVID-19 is a very particular type of coronavirus, the knowledge that has been developed about coronaviruses combined with our knowledge about how to develop, produce, and test vaccines is what has allowed the normal three to five year developmental cycle for a new vaccine to be cut to 10 to 11 months.
Another major difference is that there was no Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1918. That organization was created after World War II in 1946.
The legislation that created the CDC granted it, as the primary responder for the Federal government, very broad, very deep, and very strong powers to respond to public health issues, some of which were expanded after 9-11. Those powers have not been used during the current pandemic and ensuing public health crisis because the Trump administration – from the most senior levels of the White House – decided to sideline the CDC and its ability to respond and protect the health and lives of Americans.
It will be up to the incoming Biden administration to determine how and when to expand the CDC’s role in combatting COVID-19.
Other things are, however, far too close to the same as 1918 as they are today. Just as state and local public health authorities asked, pleaded, and in some cases actually forbade people from traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday in 1918 and were largely ignored, so too did federal, state, and local public health authorities make the same requests this year — and have been largely ignored.
The result in 2020 is similar to the result in 1918: a spike in cases. Then — it was a spike in the swine flu bringing an end to the downward tail of the second wave and leading to the beginning of the third wave of infections. Now — it is a continuing rise in infections in a first wave of COVID-19 infections. In both 1918 and today, it meant that Christmas was not just a time of joy, celebration, and prayer; it was also a time of illness, suffering, death, and mourning.
Unfortunately, this reality in 1918 – the failure to heed the public health warnings and limitations for the Thanksgiving holiday, would result in increased infections and deaths at Christmas; therefore everyone had to be even more careful at Christmas in 1918 or there would be even more infections and death in mid to late January This is also our reality in 2020.
As Christmas Eve approached, the United States experienced uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, just as it was experiencing uncontrolled spread of the pandemic flu as Christmas Eve 1918 approached. This is the factual reality of December 24, 2020. It can’t be bargained away. It can’t be ignored – you may not be interested in COVID-19, but COVID-19 is interested in you!
It can, however, be contained and controlled. And that’s where we all come in.
If you do NOT have to travel for Christmas or for New Years — DON’T!!!! I know that is not pleasant advice. I know we all want to see friends and family we haven’t seen for a long while. That we want to celebrate because there’s been little to celebrate over the past twelve months, is understandable. But just don’t do it.
The smartest thing we can all do, the most secure thing we can all do, the best gift we can give for our friends and family that we are not in regular, close contact with (i.e. living with) is to stay away from them. Call them, text them, FaceTime or Zoom or Google Hangout with them.
I know that wearing a mask everywhere is a pain in the tuchas; as is having to socially distance. But the smartest things we can do now, to ensure that 2021 is better than 2020 — so we can start getting back to normal in 2021 — is continue to shelter in place and socially distance as much as possible. Continue to wear a mask whenever one is out and about, or going to be in contact with someone you aren’t normally in regular contact with. Get regularly tested if you can’t shelter in place and socially distance. Doing all of these simple things – for yourself, for your family and friends, for your fellow Americans – makes it much more likely that more Americans will get through the next three to five months until we can all be vaccinated and get back to getting on with our lives.
Featured image: New York City “conductorettes wearing-masks,” Christmas 1918 pandemic.
I wish everyone a safe, healthy and merry Christmas! Here’s one of my favorite renditions of my favorite Christmas song: the Carol of the Bells. This version of the Shchedryk, which is a Ukrainian folk song for children and only later became associated with Christmas, is performed by the Bel Canto Choir Vilnius in 2010.