What Does History Teach Us About Our Current Coronavirus Moment?

BristowI have been trying to read more about pandemics in the United States so that I can share some good history with my readers here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  On Saturday night, I read Nancy Bristow‘s fascinating 2012 book American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.  (Thanks to Messiah College‘s Murray Library for making this book part of its e-book collection).

When thinking about the past, historians always look for continuity and change. How was the 1918 outbreak different from our current coronavirus pandemic? How was it similar? What might we learn from the 1918 outbreak as we think about our current moment? I had all of these questions in mind as I read Bristow’s book, but if I were honest, I was more in search of continuity than change. Frankly, there were so many parallels between 1918 and our present moment that I could not put the book down. I read it in one sitting!

So here are a few things I took away from American Pandemic:

First, I was struck by how local and municipal public health authorities took responsibility for controlling the influenza. This is happening today as well, but most of our attention seems to be focused on the national response. (Woodrow Wilson is only mentioned on three pages of Bristow’s book). This makes perfect sense. There was no television, internet, or national newspapers in 1918. Radio was limited. Bristow focuses on efforts in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Roanoke, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, and Washington D.C.

Second, local public health authorities urged their residents, with an appeal to their sense of patriotism, civic duty, and commitment to the public good, to stay away from public spaces. They told people to wash their hands regularly, keep their hands and objects out of their mouths, stop sharing drinking cups, and avoid public transportation if possible. Initially, most Americans submitted to these restrictions. But the longer the restrictions stayed in place, the more people lost patience. In other words, many people eventually came to resist government control over their lives.  (Keep an eye out for this today). Some people began to resent the public health “experts” behind these restrictions. The Progressive Era was coming to a close.

Third, decisions to close schools and churches were controversial and contested.

Fourth, and most interesting, Americans developed a severe case of amnesia in the wake of the epidemic. Bristow argues that individuals and families told stories about this tragic moment in American history, but the nation as a whole wanted to forget about what happened. The tragic results of the epidemic (over 675,000 dead) did not fit well with the kind of “optimistic” or “progressive” narrative Americans like to commemorate. This amnesia comes with consequences for our society. When the nation did tell stories of the epidemic, these stories tended to emphasize the positive: heroic health care workers, renewed faith in God, and other stories of “redemption.” Stories of suffering (both individual and familial, physical and emotional), death, trauma, “constitutional failures,” “ethical doubts,” and failures to serve the common good were often ignored. Bristow writes:

How a people   remember their past has real, lived consequences.  Perhaps most important is the forgetting such remembering imposes, the silencing of other narratives the preferred storylines demand. In the case of the pandemic, the simplified and singular memory of the complex events of the crisis forestalled deeper analysis of the meaning of those events. In the case of health care professionals, the positive and ultimately triumphant narrative of their experience in the pandemic quieted the more troubled voices among them.

She concludes:

There is no simple way to prepare for the pandemics of the future. As a recent volume on influenza and public health reminded its readers, “Each pandemic unfolds in a different way.” While we will turn to scientists to determine the best way to contain disease, and public health leaders to determine the best way to protect and educate the public, it will be left to others of us to remember and act on the human lessons of the 1918 pandemic. Should we face such an eventuality, let us prove better prepared to admit to a tale of sorrow and loss, to acknowledge the trauma such a tragedy leaves in its wake, and to provide the support and understanding sufferers would need in its wake.

Wise words.