APUSH Looks to the Past to Understand Pandemic Responses

During these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the words of the philosopher George Santayana prove powerfully relevant, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

Students in Rob Kyff’s AP American History class poured over original source documents, newspapers and other materials to research the Great Pandemic of 1918 which cost the lives of approximately 50 million worldwide and 675,000 within the United States alone. By drawing parallels between the two epidemics, the students could observe how our actions or inactions, both individually and institutionally, can impact the containment of the virus.

The students divided into teams to drill down on several issues concerning the Pandemic of 1918 (role of the media, healthcare, federal and local government responses, economic fallout, and social impact) and then discussed the ways in which today’s pandemic mirrors or departs from the past.

One group of students who researched the economic impact found a local paper from Little Rock, Arkansas during the earlier pandemic. Merchants in Little Rock reported an average loss of $10,000 per day,  an increase in the demand for beds, mattresses and springs, and an increase in activity only in drug stores. Overall in the nation, there was a 50% decrease in production in factories. Due to the wartime draft for World War I, many factories were short staffed which caused an increase in wages.  Many coal mines were on the verge of closing. In one town, Coalfield, Tennessee only 2% of the population was healthy. The students discussed the reason that Coalfield was so hard hit by the pandemic and determined that the townspeople were more susceptible to the illness because the air quality in the mines was unhealthy, and many people already had comprised health problems like black lung disease.

During the earlier pandemic across the United States, there were many inconsistent measures in handling the illness. The response in Philadelphia was very late, and the Director of Public Health claimed that this Spanish flu was actually only the regular flu. In September of 1918, Philadelphia held a Liberty Loan Parade promoting government bonds that helped pay for the Allied cause in Europe in which thousands of people became infected. The entire city was quarantined and nearly 12,000 city residents died. However, St. Louis was very proactive and closed saloons and public gathering downs early so their rate of infection was lower. The students noted that San Francisco had one of the best early response. Officials ran an ad in the local papers urging citizens to isolate, wear masks and fined people who didn’t. Due to these measures, there was greater public morale in San Francisco because the people trusted the government officials because they were more transparent about the illness. 

The role of the media played a significant role in the Pandemic of 1918 due to the fact that they underplayed the illness. There was a disconnect between what was being reported in the papers and what people were seeing and living in their daily lives. Most of the coverage during the time was celebrating the wartime efforts. One student shared a front page from the Boston Daily Globe in the fall of 1918, and virtually every headline was coverage of the Great War. There was only a small mention of the pandemic, minimizing its devastation on the population. One paper, the Jefferson County Union in Wisconsin, in the fall of 1918 published a warning about the seriousness of the flu, and the army general went on to prosecute the newspaper under a wartime Sedition Act.

The reports were well-documented, and the students engaged in robust discussions about the comparisons and contrast regarding the current pandemic. 
 
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