The 1918 pandemic: A look at the past, giving way for our future

The 1918 pandemic: A look at the past, giving way for our future

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. - We are trying something different on The Learning Curve. Instead of heading inside a local history class, we are going to try and teach one.

The subject - the difference between this past year’s pandemic and the one in 1918.

Now, the 1918 pandemic closed down churches, clubs, theaters and schools. Does that sound familiar?

Well, we spoke to a historian at the oldest county courthouse in Michigan and you’ll come to find out there are a lot of similarities.

"The number’s for h1n1 1918 is upwards to 50 million worldwide. Michigan saw upwards to 20,000 passed away from that illness," Rhiannon Cizon, the Executive Director of the Berrien County Historical Association said. 

Fast forward one hundred and two years later and history is repeating itself. Just around 300 thousand people have died from coronavirus related illnesses in the United States this year.

"To die from each h1n1 in 1918 was to die just as badly as it is from coronavirus," Cizon said. "One very similar to other viruses like swine flu or avian flu that we've seen in the last 15 or so years.”

Researchers and scientists are using what happened in 1918 to make better decisions about how to handle the pandemic now and there are quite a few similarities.

"We have the mask mandate, social distancing was put into place, businesses were closed down," she said.

And by October of 1918...

"It was demanded that basically anything that was not in the central business as we would afford today, closed down theaters bowling alleys. There were some protests but not too many," she said.

However, there are some key differences between what happened in 1918 and what’s happening now. First, fewer people lived in our area back then.

"So Berrien County at the time was about 59,000 people, which is about 90 to 95,000 less than what we have today," Cizon said. "So we saw fewer people pass away than we are now with coronavirus because there were fewer people.”

And back in 1918, it was also a lot harder to track down how the disease was spreading.

"Contact tracing is an important part of it. They didn't have that in 1918," she said. "That flu was not an illness that would have been recorded as a traceable cause of death. It was a respiratory illness which is why flu and pneumonia were the listless cause of deaths for a lot of the victims.

And finally, technology was also much different over a hundred years ago.

"You didn't have medical intervention. The only thing they had 1918 was social distancing, wearing masks, keeping on top of cleanliness and cleaning things quarantining," she said.

One thing that’s pretty similar, the lack of frontline workers to help combat this disease.

"They realized there was a shortage of doctors and nurses," Cizon said. "The South Bend Mayor in October of 1918, personally appealed to, to the City Council for 1000 additional dollars to hire more nurses to help combat the pandemic. And we're seeing that now we're seeing a lot of hospitals saying we're shortage of beds, and we're shortage of bodies to be able to care for these on top of all these other people that we have to care for.”

The pandemic that started in 1918 lasted at least 3 years

But because of modern medicine...

"We probably won't see that simply because we're going to see the vaccine kind of helping mitigate that," Cizon said.

While 2020 and 1918 may share many similar aspects. Everything is pointing towards the world being much more equipped to handle a virus now.

Coming up on Thursday, we’ll dive into what happened with schools and the education system in 1918 compared to what we are seeing today.

As always if you have an educational topic in mind you want us to cover- reach out! [email protected]

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