MY grandmother Louise saw up close the horror of the 1918 influenza pandemic while growing up in Washington, D.C. Her mother, Eva Bowles, was fatally stricken with the flu just five days after giving birth to my great uncle in October 1918. Her husband, William, also perished from the flu within days of Eva.
All of a sudden, my grandmother and her siblings, including a days-old infant, were orphans because of the influenza. Like the coronavirus of this year, the 1918 flu had emerged earlier in the spring.
But the influenza (aka Spanish Flu) did not cause mass havoc initially. Its spread was considered “sporadic” over the next six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In September of 1918, a Washington Post article, citing public health officials, said “there is no occasion for alarm” over the influenza.
Little did anyone know what storm was gathering at that moment.
As the fall began, the influenza started claiming lives at an alarming rate. The CDC says an estimated 195,000 Americans were killed during October 1918 from this deadly strain of flu.
It was a month of pure terror for D.C. and other cities and towns throughout the United States.
At the time, the U.S. was fighting World War I, and there was a shortage of nurses on the home front. The war effort, diversion of resources and the movement of troops all contributed to the spread of the influenza.
Health experts today warn that coronavirus (COVID-19) could have a powerful surge in the fall, too. We must guard against this deadly scenario by continuing social distancing and protection measures.
My grandmother did wear a mask to get through the 1918 pandemic, something the CDC is advising all of us do today. Wearing a mask helps protect others since it interferes with the spread of germs if you talk, sneeze, or cough . The masks can offer at least some protection for the wearer, too.
Around the same time as my grandmother’s tragedy, a young Army captain at Camp Colt near Gettysburg was also confronted with the horror of the 1918 influenza. Soldiers were dying from the silent killer, so the captain implemented strict isolation measures and got the virus under control at this camp. The captain’s name was Dwight Eisenhower.
If we are disciplined enough like Eisenhower to carry out the public health measures like social distancing, masks, handwashing and proper nutrition, we can get through this pandemic sooner and safer. Public health measures we have taken so far have saved lives and will continue to be our best defense against the coronavirus.
One mistake that was made in 1918 in some areas was lifting restrictions on crowds too soon. It led to further outbreaks of the flu. So we must be careful on how we reopen society.
We have the benefit of history to help guide us through our pandemic. We can learn much from 1918, including resilience and generosity.
My grandmother’s generation won a world war and overcame a pandemic. They also helped save millions of lives overseas by feeding the hungry in countries ravaged by war and famine.
Likewise, today we should come to the aid of countries like Yemen, Burkina Faso, South Sudan and many others that are suffering from extreme hunger in addition to coronavirus.
My grandmother and others who lived through the 1918 pandemic did not have to wear masks forever. Eventually the flu ran its course.
Life moved on.
Spending time with my grandmother in Hyattsville, Md., as a kid, I had no idea she had been through such a trauma. She tried to convince me that you should eat your waffles for breakfast because President Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan did.
My mother would later tell me about my grandmother’s life during the 1918 pandemic. She was worried we would see such sadness again. But if we take action and learn from history, we can get through the 2020 pandemic, too.
William Lambers is an author who partnered with the UN World Food Program and Catholic Relief Services on the book, “Ending World Hunger”.