PITTSBURGH—Six months after a private staggered into the Fort Riley Army base infirmary in Kansas with a raging fever, chills and a sore throat, this city braced for the impact as the first wave of the 1918 flu pandemic made its way here.
It had already traveled from Kansas to Europe as troops shipped off to war and then headed back to the United States, first in Boston, then Philadelphia and finally landing here in Pittsburgh the last week of September.
Within days, the newspaper obituary page became obituary pages, and this city would go down in history books as having the highest death rate of any major city in the U.S., fully 1 percent of its population felled by the pandemic.
A dispatch in the New Castle Herald in the first week of October read: “Considerable increase in Spanish influenza in Pittsburgh was reported this morning by the department of health, 659 new cases being recorded in the last 18 hours. The total number of cases reported to date is 4,291.”
The warning was clear for their readers from the neighboring county: Stay away from the big city.
Viewed through the prism of today’s culture, this city, like many cities across the country, got few things right and a lot of things wrong, not just in their elected officials’ approach to the pandemic but how it was covered by the local media. At the time, there were dozens of newspapers here, not just in English but in the languages of the numerous “old countries” of Pittsburgh’s robust immigrant population.
Most of the flu reports in hundreds of newspaper archives from the time were below the fold and matter-of-fact.
At the onset, hospitals curtailed visitations; jury trials were canceled; there was limited elevator occupancy; and church services were not initially closed, with faith leaders instead being asked by the health department to limit attendance. Eventually, they did shutter for a month.
The public and parochial schools rarely closed, only when the attendance dropped down so far that it made no sense to keep them open. And even when closed, reports show the closings were only temporary.
Civic leaders and businesses cooperated. So did the people. The balking began the day liquor was no longer allowed to be served. Much like today’s limiting of alcohol at restaurants and bars, people complained, and people snitched. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on Oct. 18 read, “Complaints were made to the department of health that some saloons were selling liquor with meals,” adding that those cases will be investigated.
One month later, things rapidly changed. The headlines went from “All Theaters Agree to Obey Influenza Ban” to “Schools in City Will Reopen” and, three days later, “All Theaters in City open Today.”
By February, the numbers had drastically decreased, and on April 22, the Pittsburgh Daily Post headline read, “City Influenzaless; No Cases Reported.”
It is impossible to compare what happened 102 years ago with what is happening today, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Using Pittsburgh as an example, this city was filled with industry at nearly everyone’s front door. Pollution was the norm. So was poor drinking water and living with boarders or multiple generations of families. Not working was not an option. There were no social services and no unemployment checks from the government; there was no health insurance, no one to give you the ability to stay home until the pandemic passed.
We were also tougher then, and again, not for the reasons you may think. In 1918, there were still plenty of people around who remembered the Civil War; who knew what it was like to have battles in their backyards; who knew and understood and faced a loss of health, home and the ability to provide.
With the exception of the brutal attacks on Sept. 11, there are generations who have not had to face a major national emergency without access to some sort of “relief” from the government.
That is both a good thing and not.
It’s good the vulnerable can get government help, but the bad thing is our coping mechanisms are failing. All you need to do to be convinced is spend three seconds on social media or 15 minutes watching a cable-news meltdown.
In our lack of coping, we have dismissed all of the ties that bind us. The very thing that helped us unite in 1918 wasn’t fighting the Spanish flu. It was that our men were coming home from a brutal and bloody war in Europe as Armistice Day was celebrated in the streets here and across the country on Nov. 11, 1918.
The flag has become, for many, a symbol of something you burn or take a knee for, not rally around.
All we do to one another is lecture, divide, judge and snark, rinse and repeat. We can’t escape it. It’s everywhere, whether it is a Facebook post, a Nextdoor screed or a sign on the door of your favorite store blasting a political point of view.
The world was more dangerous in 1918. News traveled at a snail’s pace; politics was still a blood sport (just not a death match); and those in poverty could easily and tragically find themselves in dire straits. But the one thing we had then that we have lost now, at least in the theater of our culture curators, was the ability to find a common bond.
Whether it was in our churches, community centers, Elks clubs or on our front stoops, we celebrated us, which makes who we were in 1918 vastly different from who we are in 2020.
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