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In 1918, a respiratory virus spread rapidly across the globe, afflicting one-fifth of the world’s population and killing between 50 and 100 million people.
Now, in the midst of another pandemic — for most, the first in our lifetime — we ask: What lessons can the past teach us? How did the contagion spread and what measures kept it in check? What did life in Washington look like from 1918-1920? And how did the world move forward once the influenza finally subsided?
We’ll discuss a brief history of infectious disease, what we can take away from previous pandemics and also — where those comparisons need to end.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- John M. Barry Author, "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History"
- Alan Kraut Distinguished Professor of History, American University
- Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; Host of WAMU's What's With Washington podcast; @mikafrak
- Timothy Newfield Environmental Historian and Historical Epidemiologist, Assistant Professor of History and Biology, Georgetown University
1918 in Washington D.C.
Just like today, Washingtonians combatted the 1918 outbreak with a citywide shutdown.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll have a chat with the Head of the D.C. Public Library about the increased demand for its digital services. But first, in 1918 a respiratory virus spread rapidly across the globe afflicting one fifth of the world's population and killing between 50 and 100 million people.
KOJO NNAMDINow in the midst of another pandemic, for most, the first in our lifetime we ask what lessons can the past teach us? What did life in Washington look like in 1918? How did the contagion spread and what measures kept it in check? And once the influenza subsided how did the world move forward? Joining us now is John M. Barry, Author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History." John Barry, thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN M. BARRYA pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIHow did the influenza outbreak in 1918 begin?
BARRYSame way as this one. A animal virus from species to humans spread rapidly and widely. You know, the mode of transmission is essentially identical. The pathology even is almost identical. There are, of course, differences, however. That was considerably more lethal. Thank God. And this one actually spreads more easily, which is unfortunate.
NNAMDIHow quickly did the influenza spread then and how many were affected?
BARRYWell, about a third of the world's population. There was an initial wave in the spring that was very spotty. Most of the world and most of the country didn't see any influenza, but in July in Switzerland a second wave that was lethal -- the virus seemed to change, started. And that did spread very rapidly around the world. Hit the northern and southern hemisphere at the same time, and as you said killed at least 50 million, maybe 100 million. If you adjust for population that would be 200 to 400 million people today. So it was quite a bit more deadly than what we're facing.
NNAMDIYou've written a few op-eds for The New York Times since the Coronavirus outbreak. I'm wondering where do you see parallels between this pandemic and the one in 1918?
BARRYWell, Some we just discussed and you left out one I wrote for The Post in January.
BARRYWhich was buried in the middle of the impeachment hearings so nobody seemed to see, and I even have a D.C. library card. If I can plug D.C. -- I spent a lot of time in D.C., you know, in Mount Pleasant.
NNAMDIWell, then after we finish speaking to you, you've got to listen to later when we talk with the Head of the Public Library.
BARRYOkay. I got their emails. You know, the two lessons -- and I did participate when the Bush administration started a very significant initiative in preparing for a pandemic. I was part of the planning process on that. The two lessons are number one you tell the truth. And number two social distancing. The two are related. You can't really get -- for social distancing to work the public has to comply with it. And you can't really get compliance if people in authority are not transparent and truthful.
BARRYThose are lessons that are a part of the written plan for the federal government and for every one of the 50 states and other territories. But you still have to have someone at the top, who is going to execute the plan and tell the truth. And obviously unfortunately we haven't had that so far. As a result you have a security guard killed for asking somebody to wear a mask.
NNAMDIWhoo. What are the important differences between 1918 and now?
BARRYThe biggest difference aside from fact that this is again very thankfully not nearly as lethal, but it's plenty lethal. The biggest difference is timing. And that makes it extremely difficult to manage. Influenza moved much more quickly in every form. The incubation period is about a third as long. It moves through the body. The disease is resolved much more rapidly. You shed the virus for a much shorter period with influenza. The way this thing is stretched out, you know, forces us into very difficult choices in terms of coming out of lockdown and things like that. Influenza would pass through a community in at most really 10 weeks and usually shorter than that. And after that it was largely gone. In many cases, there was another wave, but that came months later.
BARRYAnd this thing is just hanging around and will continue to hang around and cause problems and, you know, create as I said all these difficulties. The one benefit of that influenza moves way too fast for isolation and contact tracing to do any good. This disease is slow enough that if we can establish good identification through testing of sick people and we can then contact trace, and we have a better chance of actually controlling it than we did influenza.
NNAMDIWell, you say this one is moving a little more slowly. How do the symptoms that people are experiencing now compare to the symptoms that people experienced in 1918?
BARRYThey're almost identical. You know, 1918 did things to the body that regular seasonal influenza that we're all familiar with didn't do. In fact, when I read autopsy reports from bird flu cases, you know, 10 years ago and they would say, "These findings have never been reported in influenza." Those people never read any autopsy reports from 1918. It infected many organs, had a lot of cardiovascular complications. Possibly cross the blood brain barrier or other toxicities that led to mental disorders, you know, strokes, you know, your kidneys. I mean, basically every organ in the body could be affected by the 1918 virus as is the case with this virus, but they are still both primary respiratory viruses.
NNAMDIWhy was it called the Spanish flu?
BARRYWell, there was a war on and Spain wasn't at war. And in Europe the press was censored. In the United States it was a very effective self-censorship. Spain -- the Spanish press wrote about it plus the king got sick. So that was, you know, celebrity culture then as now not quite as much, but still when a king got sick that got a lot of publicity. So even though we do know it did not start in Spain it picked up the name Spanish flu. It was not a conscious political plan to blame Spain. You know, whereas now it seems like when you heard the White House talk about the Chinese virus and so forth, that seem more like a thought out strategy. That was not the case in 1918. It just sort of developed that way.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Peggy who writes, "Recently I read and thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Barry's book. I'm a retired nurse and was aware of some of the facts that Mr. Barry covered in his book. I learned so much more from this book. I found his afterword chilling and very disturbing that the powers that be ignored his warnings, recommendations. Why can't we learn from past experiences?" John Barry.
BARRYWell, when people talk about Santayana's line about, you know, "Those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat." I usually quote Hegel who said, "What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history." But, you know, I can't claim credit for being that prescient. I was part of the planning process when the Bush administration, you know, passed a $7 billion bill to create the national stockpile, improve vaccine technology and manufacturing capacity and so forth and so on. There were plenty people inside the Bush administration and outside it, who planned for this, recognized that this was inevitable sooner or later.
BARRYYou know, the Obama administration was reasonably well prepared both for what turned out to be an extremely mild pandemic, H1N1, the swine flu in 2009 and then Ebola. But, you know, I don't want to sound partisan, but this administration just doesn't seem able to get its act together.
BARRYThey've got good people involved, Tony Fauci, obviously, CDC, but CDC, they've basically shunned it aside. And frankly Tony Fauci, you know, has been a lot less visible lately. They just seem to have other priorities. You know, I think Trump's -- to me the most telling line was when he says we're a backup. I always thought leadership meant you got out front, but, I guess, I'm sounding partisan.
NNAMDIWell, it is what it is.
BARRYI'm disappointed. Yeah, it is what it is.
NNAMDIHere now is Ken in Washington D.C. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENOkay. Thank you. I lived in Alaska for 20 years. Ten of which I was living in rural Alaska, which is remote, you can only get there by airplane. But because it was remote there was also like no medical care during the flu epidemic in 1918. And there were stories from there that you wouldn't believe. I had a friend, who was married to another teacher who -- she was from the village and she said when she was little there are fish camps where every family goes. You can't all fish in the same place. And salmon is where people get their food. So they would play and they noticed --
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time in this segment. Can you finish your story quickly?
KENOkay. They found skulls in the ground and they played with them like they were toys.
NNAMDIJohn M. Barry, talk about the effect that the 1918 pandemic had on those populations.
BARRYAnd not only in Alaska in rural areas, but in Africa in the middle of jungle, you had villages with 100 percent mortality. Not necessarily that the virus killed everybody directly so much as everyone got sick at the same time and nobody could care for anybody else even to give them water. You know, there is a mission, Brevard Mission in Alaska. Seventy-two out of 80 people died. And they've actually dug some bodies up from permafrost and gotten some virus samples to study from there or Brevig Mission, I mispronounced it.
NNAMDIJust quickly because we only have about 20 seconds left. Did the warm weather provide a respite from flu in 1918?
BARRYIt did not in 1918. I think the important thing then was that so much of the population was susceptible to the virus even though the virus lasts less long in hot weather it didn't make that much difference. In Australia, it hit in the middle of Australian summer. Forty percent of the population got sick.
NNAMDIJohn M. Barry is the Author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History." Thank you so much for joining us. We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the 1918 flu pandemic and what that public health crisis can teach us about navigating our current situation. In the book, "The Plague" French Author Albert Camus writes, "Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world. Yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history. Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise." Joining us now is Timothy Newfield. He's an Environmental Historian and Historical Epidemiologist as well as an Assistant Professor of History and Biology at Georgetown University. Tim Newfield, thank you for joining us.
TIMOTHY NEWFIELDNo problem. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIn World History, Tim, how many times have we seen something like COVID-19?
NEWFIELDWell, that's hard to say, because historically speaking I don't think that many populations that were hit hard by pandemics would have paid as much attention as we are paying to COVID-19. A lot of the great plagues of the past were infinitely -- if I can say so, infinitely worse in terms of not necessarily their extent, but in terms of their mortality.
NNAMDIYou study the history of pathogens. If you're able to boil it down, what can we take away from the global history of infectious disease?
NEWFIELDThat this is going to happen again and that it's been happening as long and as far back as we have historical records. So we have a plague of Athens erupts 430 years before Christ and that is the first documented extensive outbreak of disease that we have. And that almost certainly is a spill over event as well. These spill over events are going to continue to happen. There's nothing surprising about that whatsoever.
NNAMDIWhy is it important to recognize that no two pandemics are the same?
NEWFIELDWell, that is a key take away here, because every disease has a different way that it interacts with the human population and human society is constantly changing, of course. So human demographics are constantly influx, and as human populations change and as pathogens change the context is always going to be unique. So we need to expect the unexpected, which isn't easy. But at the same time there are some solid lessons that we can take from the past and which I think we have begun to take for COVID-19.
NNAMDIHow does this pandemic differ from that of 1918?
NEWFIELDWell, it's significantly less severe as your previous speaker was saying. So the 1918 pandemic is addressed often these days in the counts of COVID-19. But the 1918 pandemic is one of the two greatest pandemics that we have historical records for. It is simply off the charts, if you will. At least 675,000 people died in the U.S. And if we were to inflate that to account for modern demographic change we'd be looking at about 2.3 million deaths in the U.S. today were 1918 to reoccur. Globally, at least 25 million died maybe 50 or more. The bulk of that mortality occurs in South Asia. There alone we see 10 million people dying at the very least. That's a conservative account in 1918. That would be over 45 million today.
NEWFIELDSo the 1918 influenza is just a completely different beast if you will. At the time, scientists on the ground didn't know what a virus was. Influenzas weren't seen under the microscope until the 1930s. If I may, I would also like to stress that the pathogenic context of the 1918 outbreak is completely unlike the context of the current outbreak. So in 1918 small pox is still a reality. Measles is very much more a threat than it is now. There were 95,000 cases of measles alone in the U.S. military in 1918.
NEWFIELDSo the influenza was overlapping with all of these different pathogenic diseases that simply we are not faced with today. The disease burdened at the modern population carries is completely unlike that from 1918. So I do like to tell students that it's not going to be 1918 again. But that influenzas are absolutely certainly going to spill over again, but we are not going to experience the 1918 disaster, because of various progresses in modern U.S. and global medicine.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Mikaela Lefrak, WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter and host of the podcast "What's With Washington?" Hi, Mikaela. Thank you so much for joining us.
MIKAELA LEFRAKHi, Kojo. Good to be here.
NNAMDIMikaela, you've been researching the local picture of the 1918 pandemic. When did influenza first arrive in the Washington region?
LEFRAKYeah, so it arrived here in the fall of 1918. And this guy Lewis Brownlow, he was the President of D.C.'s Commissioners at the time so kind of like the mayor. And he received this telegram from a health official he knew in Boston who described this kind of mysterious flu strain that was spreading through the city. And the health official was like, you have to do everything you can to keep it from spreading in Washington, in large part, because D.C. has seen this influx of people during World War I. About 20,000 people had moved here. We had about 400,000 people in the city total.
LEFRAKSo it was a very overcrowded city. And Brownlow, you know, honestly didn't really jump into action. No city officials really did. As your other guests have mentioned scientists just didn't know that much about flu viruses yet and they the warnings that they gave people were -- they seem almost ludicrous to read now. One city health officer said, "Sleep with your windows open and you will be in little danger," and that was just two days before the first recorded death.
NNAMDIHow did the pandemic unfold here?
LEFRAKWell, like I said, the thing is that unlike today a lot of people in the city died before city officials really sprung into action. So the first recorded influenza death in this region was this railroad worker from Culpepper. He died at Sibley Hospital at the very end of September. And then in early October the Commissioner Brownlow he finally ordered that all doctors in the city have to start reporting new or suspected cases of this Spanish influenza, but so many cases were reported that his system just completely broke down within 10 days.
LEFRAKFour hundred people were reported dead that first week of October, and things just started moving really really fast. So at that point Brownlow closed all the city schools, the theaters, the churches and a lot of stores just like today. Everything except grocery stores and drug stores were closed down. And then the city also started setting up government run nursing centers in schools houses, and putting in a lot of other provisions to try to keep people to stay at home.
LEFRAKThey even said that if you were in contact with sick patients and you went out in public you'd be fined up to $100, which of course was a lot of money back them. But even so with all of this D.C. still saw one of the highest death rates from the flu in the country at the time.
NNAMDILet's hear Bonnie's story in Washington D.C. Bonnie, we only have about a minute left. But go ahead, please.
BONNIEI just wanted to mention my father's first wife was a teacher at McKinley Tech in 1918. And she kept a diary in which she says on Monday, September 30, "The influenza epidemic is getting very serious. Two teachers and lots of pupils are out with it. Our new roomer, Irene, came this evening. She's a very attractive girl just 18." Two days later Irene comes down with it. I call her Aunt Aida, she survived it living in the boarding house with people getting sick left and right. Her students and the young soldier that she was dating getting sick, left and right and she survived.
BONNIEIt was just an absolutely fabulous little picture of what was going on locally in Washington. And I read "The Great Influenza" and loved it. I mean, if that's the right word. It's a fascinating book, and I think this little diary, Aunt Aida's diary adds a local perspective to the story.
NNAMDIThank you so much for sharing that story with us. Anne emails, "My grandfather from Mississippi was living and working in the Panama Canal zone, signed up for World War I, took the boat to mainland USA, was in New York City and got the flu. He missed the boat to France, but survived both the flu and the Great War." We're going to take a short break and then when we come back we'll be joined by Alan Kraut a Distinguished Professor of History at American University. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the influenza pandemic of 1918. And joining us now is Alan Kraut, a distinguished professor of history at American University. Alan Kraut, thank you for joining us.
ALAN KRAUTThank you, Kojo. Good to be here.
NNAMDIAlan, we heard Mikaela Lefrak talk about all of the measures that were taken during that 1918 pandemic to prevent the spread of the so-called Spanish Flu. But were those measures effective?
KRAUTThey were partially effective. We don't know how many others would've been lost had we not taken those measures. But they were some of the same measures we're taking now, use of masks, social distancing, establishing extra hospital facilities. There was one established down on F Street. And when federal workers had to go to work, their work hours were staggered to try and, again, allow for some sort of social distancing.
NNAMDIWhy do some historians refer to this as the forgotten pandemic?
KRAUTYes. The reason that it's often called the forgotten pandemic is because it occurred during the First World War, and there was a tremendous amount of attention being paid to the First World War. President Woodrow Wilson was totally involved in managing our participation in the war. He never made a single speech about the pandemic. And when the pandemic was over, World War I was over, as well. The troops were coming home.
KRAUTAnd there had been a tremendous amount of suffering and death in the United States and among our troops during the pandemic. And Americans seemed to want to put that behind them. Individuals didn't forget their relatives who had suffered and died. That's for certain. But, overall, as a society, we wanted to focus on our victory in World War I, the peace negotiations at Versailles, but not the pandemic.
NNAMDIHere's Amanda in Washington, D.C. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMANDAThanks so much for taking my call. My question is about the intersection between public health and access to housing, you know, during the 1918 pandemic. I've been doing some research into how that went down here in D.C. And it looks like a number of folks were getting evicted during the pandemic because they couldn't pay rent.
AMANDAIn fact, Commissioner Brownlow, who was mentioned before, I found this fascinating article in the Washington Post where he's talking about he's lambasting these landlords who are refusing to heat their apartment houses or rooms during the epidemic. And the Post writes he'd made it plain that those landlords who failed to comply with the direction to furnish heat will be dealt with severely, and that the arbitrary seizure of apartment houses controlled by parsimonious landlords is not an impossibility.
AMANDAAnd so it's clear that there's this relationship between needing to have safe and affordable housing to self-isolate during a pandemic.
NNAMDIAmanda, the D.C. Council just today is passing or looking at legislation to help renters in this situation. So, you might want to contact them about your story. But let me see if any of our historians know about it. First you, Alan Kraut.
KRAUTYeah, certainly, that was one of the issues, that people could be evicted during the pandemic. And there was every effort on the part of local officials to try and stave that off. The goal was social control, and it's very hard to control a population and the spread of a disease when people are being thrown out of housing and are being placed in compromising positions, and put into the street, and so on. So, this is a big issue, the continuous providing of important, critical services that people have access to, including their housing.
NEWFIELDOn that particular moment, I don't think I have much to offer. I'm sorry.
NNAMDIWell, Tim Newfield, what treatments were available for the influenza of 1918?
NEWFIELDThat's a great question, because today, of course, we have so many different things that we can tackle, even novel viral pathogens that we could not in 1918. Of course, in 1918, not only was there not vaccines, but there were no antibiotics, as well. Now, antibiotics, why would we be talking about antibiotics if we're talking about an RNA virus? Because millions of people died of a secondary infection with bacterial pneumonia, which we could treat today, but we could not treat then.
NNAMDIWas anything then, Tim Newfield, particularly effective in saving lives?
NEWFIELDWell, I guess a lot has been made of the reactive social distancing that was put in place eventually in numerous parts of the world. And that definitely would've helped to have curbed the spread of the disease and lower the rate of the population infection. Other than that, I'm not particularly certain.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, were local hospitals similarly overwhelmed by cases of influenza?
LEFRAKThey really were, and actually, from everything I'm reading, it sounds more like what New York has been experiencing, frankly, than what D.C. is experiencing right now. I'm thinking of Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent pleas for more health care workers, in the same way Commissioner Brownlow was kind of desperately searching for healthy doctors and nurses. All the beds in the city's hospitals were full. There were no nurses available for shifts. The city was running low on grave diggers and coffins, a lot of like some of the horrible stories we're hearing out of New York right now.
LEFRAKBut one of the nice stories that I liked was that Brownlow, at one point, kind of commandeered this empty building at 18th Street and Virginia Ave., which is just off the National Mall. And he ordered that all these owners of department stores and furniture stores assemble all these bedding units. He assembled the skeleton crew of doctors and nurses, and, basically, the city put together this makeshift hospital in about 24 hours. So, there was a lot of scrappiness and a lot of people working overtime, just like there are right now, to treat all these cases.
NNAMDIOn now to Jennifer in Washington, D.C. Jennifer, your turn.
JENNIFERHi. Thank you so much. Yeah, I lost, actually, both of my great-grandparents to the Spanish Flu. My great-grandfather died in an Army camp in North Carolina. And, a year later, his wife died at their farm just outside of Raleigh. And, as a result, my grandmother and her siblings were raised in an orphanage. And, later in life, my grandmother married my grandfather, who was a big political operative in D.C. And from the outside they have this wonderful life and very privileged. And yet, my grandfather was a violent alcoholic who abused her, who abused my father and his sister.
JENNIFERAnd, you know, as a result, from the trauma of their childhood, it was very difficult for my father and his sister to be good parents, to be good partners. And I'm just sort of wondering would she have married him, would she have stayed with him if, you know, she had had parents and she hadn't lost them at such a young age. And I'm just wondering sort of what are the -- do we know anything about sort of the long-term effects of the Spanish Flu that reverberated down the generations? And do we see anything like that today, and what can we expect?
KRAUTYeah, you know, many of us have been wondering exactly what the long term effect is going to be of the pandemic. And will this be another forgotten pandemic? And I think not. I think it's going to make some major changes in lifestyle, some of which were underway already, for example, long-distance learning. More classes online. More buying than even now in terms of Amazon and other retailers who operate online. And so I think we're going to see the continuation of some trends. And perhaps, for a while at least, the use of masks and other kinds of social distancing that'll be necessary unless we get a very effective vaccine, very quickly.
NNAMDIAlan, right now, we're seeing protests, people wanting the stay-at-home orders to end so they can get back to work, even if it's not yet safe to do so. When did people return to business as usual in 1918, and to what extend is that even an option, here?
KRAUTThey tried to return to business in 1918 as quickly as they could. There was not a mandate for long-term staying away from activities. And so it was largely governed by the germ itself in terms of exactly when people could go back to normal endeavors.
KRAUTThere were cases as late as 1920, and so it would pop up again, periodically. And then people would stay home and care for themselves and care for relatives, and so on. But there was no such thing as a timetable of the kind that we're seeing now, and the efforts to establish a timetable for returning to activities as usual.
KRAUTEven baseball was played during the pandemic. People tried to go on with life as much as possible, in as normal a way as possible. Though that was difficult, because not only the pandemic, but also the wartime exigencies as they occurred in D.C. and elsewhere.
NNAMDITim Newfield, before vaccinations, how did these pandemics come to an end? Did they?
NEWFIELDWell, this is an important point, as well, because I don't think it's been said enough, perhaps, that the 1918 influenza is really an outbreak of disease that almost certainly starts in the fall of 1917 and persists in some parts of the world until 1920, and that there's three individual waves. And these individual waves circulated at some point, concurrently. And the U.S. seems to have been hit by all three of these waves in the course of only nine months, perhaps six months, in some regions.
NEWFIELDAnd I think this is a real takeaway for the present, that there are going to be reoccurring waves. There's no doubt about that for COVID. And this is something that absolutely happened in 1919, over 100 years ago, now.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, when did we begin to see a recovery in this region?
LEFRAKWell, so that's the thing that's interesting. Schools and churches started to reopen just over a month after the first reported death. And that decision -- you know, hindsight's 20/20, but it was pretty clear almost immediately that that decision was made too hastily. Smaller outbreaks continued to crop up again and again for pretty much the next two years. And President Woodrow Wilson famously, of course, was even thought to have contracted the flu in 1919. And so I think that, you know, even though the city was starting to get back to normal within a month or two, it really could've benefitted from staying under that lockdown situation for a longer period of time.
NNAMDIMikaela, did the pandemic change the city in any lasting ways?
LEFRAKYou know, I've got to tell you, Kojo, I am not totally sure it did, other than, of course, you know, the devastation brought to so many families here. The effects of the flu were really largely overshadowed by the effects of World War I. It was just a general period of major upheaval, of growth, of change for the city. And, you know, I think this is kind of one of the first times in the past 100 years that we're really taking a close look at the effects of this enormous epidemic on the D.C. region.
NNAMDIHere is Eleanor in Arlington, Virginia. Eleanor, your turn.
ELEANORHello, Kojo. I just wanted to tell you a story about my great aunt. In 1919, in Philadelphia, the flu was very bad, and they couldn't ride trolley cars or anything. And my grandmother lived in one section of Philadelphia, and her sister lived in another section. And her sister died from the flu, and my uncle could not come up to my grandmother to tell her. So, he put her obituary in the newspaper. And my grandmother found out about her sister dying by reading it in the newspaper.
NNAMDIWow. Thank you for sharing that story with us. A lot of tragic stories from that time. Alan Kraut, Don emails: did shutting down economies during the 1918 pandemic have a big economic effect in the U.S. and around the world?
KRAUTIt certainly had an impact in the U.S. and around the world, but it was offset, in part, by the massive production that was required for World War I. And so, in order to produce for the wartime means, people were going to work and people were earning salaries. And the pandemic had, perhaps, less of an impact abroad on those economies than the disruption of the war itself.
KRAUTYou put the two together, and the postwar period in Europe, as well as in the United States, was one that was very tenuous, economically. The United States economy recovered fairly quickly, but not the Europeans. They had had this double whammy of the pandemic and the war and the devastation of war.
NNAMDIAlan, in the couple of minutes we have left, how do we see xenophobia play out during these pandemics, both historically and today?
KRAUTThroughout history, many ethnic groups in different societies, and certainly in the United States, have been blamed for particular epidemics. In our country, in 1793, there was a yellow fever epidemic blamed on Haitians who were arriving in the wake of the slave revolt in Haiti. In 1832, Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed for a cholera outbreak. In 1916, Italian immigrants blamed for bringing polio to the United States. Tuberculosis, sometimes called the Jewish disease, or the tailors disease.
KRAUTHaving said all of that, what's so interesting is that, in 1918, there was relatively little of that kind of blaming, in part because there were so many immigrants who were fighting with American forces. That was very significant. And also because immigration had dropped during the wartime period, and so there were fewer immigrants pouring into the United States.
KRAUTThe immigrant communities themselves went out of their way through the ethnic press and other means to impress upon their members the necessity of cooperating with public health officials, not wishing to arouse more xenophobia or nativism than already existed. But we saw less of it then than one might've expected, given the history.
KRAUTAs for now, we're seeing a good deal of xenophobia aimed at Asian Americans, very sadly. People were being spat on, punched, kicked and so on as though it were their fault that this terrible health crisis has occurred in the United States. There's also been anti-Semitic episodes, as well. And so, in some of my work, I refer to this as the other pandemic. There's the pandemic of disease, and then there's the pandemic of hatred that sometimes accompanies it.
NNAMDIAlan Kraut is a distinguished professor of history at American University. Timothy Newfield is an environmental historian and historical epidemiologist, as well as an assistant professor of history and biology at Georgetown University. And Mikaela Lefrak, well, we all know Mikaela. She's WAMU's arts and culture reporter and host of the podcast "What's With Washington?" Mikaela, it's my hope that someday, in the future, we'll be able to play ping-pong again. But thank you all for joining us.
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