The influenza of 1918, also known as the Spanish flu took the planet by storm. With the world in the middle of its final year of WWI, the first announcement of the influenza is released in a weekly public health report on the fifth of April 1918 with a total of eighteen cases and three deaths in Haskell, Kansas. With men fighting in wars across the world, the pandemic surely followed close behind infecting people by the thousands. In the U.S. alone 195,000 American lives were lost to the pandemic when its second wave struck in September of 1918.
With the second wave of influenza ravaging the world by September of 1918, and the last months of the first world war pressing on many nurses and medical professionals were away at war in military encampments leaving America with a critical shortage. As Edith Coffin Mahoney, a woman who kept a diary during this tumultuous time writes in her entry, “Several thousand cases in the city with a great shortage of nurses and doctors,” she added. “Theatres, churches, gatherings of everykind stopped.” With this shortage of medical professionals quickly becoming a large issue in the fight against the pandemic, there was however, no shortage of discriminatory behavior. As the CDC mentions in their timeline of the pandemic, many trained and capable African American nurses were rejected in a time of desperate need. With this, there was also the racial barriers in medical care for sick black Americans. In this Jim Crow era of American history many hospitals only served white Americans, leaving countless black Americans to fend for themselves during the fight against the rapid spread of influenza.
After the end of WWI in November of 1918 many of the returning soldiers brought home their war-torn bodies and hearts as well as the influenza. The number of cases and deaths were piled high during the pandemic, and the need for exercised caution during these times became paramount by December 1918. This led to public health officials utilizing educational programs in order to advise people about how to exercise proper public health safety. These included discussions about the dangers of coughing and sneezing, and the need to dispose of sanitary napkins containing nasal discharges properly.
By January of 1919 the third wave came in like a hurricane of death taking multitudes of people with it. In this month alone in America, 1,800 cases of the flu are reported followed by 101 deaths in San Francisco. In addition to San Francisco, New York and San Antonio experienced a surge in deaths and newly reported cases as well until the third wave finally subsides in the summer of 1919, and the death toll was written into history as 50 million worldwide, as the deadliest pandemic the world has ever known. In addition, with the pandemic’s end Illinois passes a bill as a response to the shortage of medical professionals which allowed for a person to become a “practical nurse” if the one year course requirement is fulfilled.
One hundred years after the influenza pandemic of 1918 that wreaked havoc throughout or country and planet, here we are yet again facing another pandemic, COVID-19. There were many lessons to be learned from the influenza of 1918 and its impact on the world. There were many failures to learn from in the history of this pandemic, such as the racial disparities in health care services, the refusal of people to wear masks, and the extreme shortage of healthcare workers. However, history is repeating itself, is it not? Racial disparity in health care still runs rampant in our society, many people still aren’t wearing masks in spite of cases surging all over the world, and this results in people filling hospitals to the brim, and increasing the need for more healthcare workers until we have surpassed the limit. But, it is also not too late to correct our own failures, and learn from our predecessors who fought through war and a pandemic. Since we write our own futures, we have to be the ones to write our changes too, and it has to start now.