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Justifiably, we’re worried about the new coronavirus.  The stock market took one of its biggest dives in history, whole cities in Asia are closed and the president appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead America’s response effort. 

Make no mistake, COVID-19 is a scary pathogen and its spread in just a few months, combined with a fairly high mortality rate, make it a threat.  Under the definition offered by the World Health Organization, it is now a pandemic. I hope our concerns about its spread prove unjustified and that our medical and public professionals will be successful in containing it.

However, there is still a lesson to be learned from history and a reason not to take this risk too lightly.  In this case, the precedent is the Spanish flu pandemic. Worldwide in scope, the pandemic had a rather sad and profound impact on my own family.

It was 1918, and my great-grandmother Mary Alice Strickland was all of 36.  She had a 16-year-old daughter, my grandmother, and a wonderful husband. The family was the picture of health.  My great-grandad was a building contractor and frequently set up camp next to his projects. In the spring and summer, the family often left their nice house in town and set up housekeeping in the outdoors near his job sites.  They used to pride themselves on not getting colds and on their slightly odd lifestyle. That’s why it was surprising when my great-grandmother suddenly took ill. She was dead within a couple of days. The effect on their little family was devastating.  Mary Alice was a victim of the Spanish flu.

The Spanish flu, and for the record, most agree it’s not Spanish in origin, took a heavy toll during the World War I era.  To give you an idea of just how devastating the death toll was, consider that the number of combat deaths in the U.S. Army during World War I was about 55,000.  The number of American soldiers that perished because of the flu epidemic was approximately 43,000.

Another family story of mine, this one not as sad as the passing of my great-grandmother, concerned my great-uncle Harley Thomas.  He enlisted in the Army in 1917 and, along with other volunteers from the Midwest, was sent to what was then called Camp Dix in New Jersey.  That’s where they were going to do their basic training. However, the flu was ravaging the installation and my great-uncle’s group of inductees hadn’t gotten sick yet.  So, they kept them isolated and put them on the next ship to France. They managed to avoid the flu and completed their basic training overseas. 

Then there was my dad.  He was born in early 1919.  The flu epidemic, which seemed to go through several mutations, was still rampant, and unlike my aunt who was delivered at the local hospital, the doctor decided that the hospital had too many flu patients to risk a delivery at such an infected location.  So, my dad was born at home.  

The epidemic was just that pervasive.  Small towns and big cities were all dramatically impacted.  Schools closed and stores closed. Small communities, in particular, took it on the chin, sometimes losing between 10% and 20% of their population.  One Inuit Village in Alaska lost 78 out of its 80 inhabitants. In Tazewell, the Clinch Valley News reported the weekly deaths from this killer flu. Similar articles popped up regularly in local newspapers throughout the Commonwealth.  

But, how does the terrible pandemic of 1916 to 1919, which cost 20 million to 50 million people their lives worldwide, compare to the Coronavirus of 2020?  The answer is that no one is really sure at the moment, but that said, there is plenty of cause for worry. The disease seems to spread easily, and its mortality rate is substantially higher than the annual influenza virus we’re used to.  But, still, is it really a nightmare, like the one 100 years ago, waiting to happen? Or will it, as some suggest, just fade away with the coming spring? I am rooting for the latter, but I’m not counting on it. The Spanish flu pandemic has always been that haunting reminder of how bad things could be.  

The good news is that this isn’t 100 years ago.  Our ability to treat patients, identify outbreaks, and contain them, is what you would expect of 21st century medicine.  But there are still some open questions about our health care system.  Do our public health services have the person power and the training needed to contain a major outbreak?  Are we ready to take dramatic steps to contain outbreaks if we have to, such as closing schools, universities, workplaces and even public transit, until the danger passes?  We’ve never been down this road before. At least not in modern times. But, maybe now, while we’re still trying to figure out what we’re facing, it would be a good time to get serious about planning for what could be a serious and deadly outbreak.  


David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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