The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and COVID-19

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One Life, Two Pandemics

My mother, Nadine, is 93 years old. She is the rare person whose life has been touched by both the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 and COVID-19.

Mom lives on her own in her own 2-bedroom apartment in a small Midwest city. Between her naturally red hair, sharp mind and general mobility you would have no idea she is anywhere near her age. A couple of months ago, when the weather was decent, you could catch her driving to church each morning, going out to breakfast with friends, or shopping at the Country Market. When it snowed or the streets were icy, she’d stay home, hunkering down. So she’s a bit more prepared for physical distancing than the rest of us.

We talk by phone four times a week. Lately, she brings up one story, more often than not in our conversations.

Grandfather William was a Farmer

Her grandfather William was a farmer. He was naturally rugged, made stronger through a life of hard labor. Grandpa was a father of seven children, two of whom tragically died young, a grief common back then, but one that would crush us today. “He was a handsome man” is my mom’s description. However, that description is taken from a single photograph and her mother’s words. Mom never met her grandfather. But his story is far beyond the average family lore. It shapes her thinking about life under COVID-19. 

William was just 38 when influenza, a vicious and invisible thing, appeared. All the kids got it, muddled through in bed, teeth chattering under piles of quilts, then throwing all the bedding on the floor when they became drenched in sweat. My grandmother Frieda became severely ill and was temporarily deafened. But it hit William the worst.

Fever overtook him in a sudden wave. He became disoriented, agitated, threatening. My great grandmother Dora was eight months pregnant, half-panicked and yet completely determined. She gathered the children and shoved them in a bedroom, commanding the bigger kids to push the chest of drawers against the door. The oldest boy was given a gun. If his father tried to break into the room, he was to open a window and shoot the gun to alert the neighbors to come and help. William, his mind burning in fever, disturbed and suspicious by this rush of activity, pounded on the door. The boy shot out the window. William ripped off his clothes and ran out into the snow. Grandma Dora, in a jumble of commands and sweet talk, herded her husband back into the house, into nightclothes and under blankets. But William died two weeks later on December 17, 2018. Less than a month afterwards, Dora gave birth to a daughter, her eighth child, my mom’s Aunt Mildred.

Differing Pandemics

The influenza pandemic and COVID-19 differ in some crucial ways. There were few hospital beds 100 years ago, especially in a small farming community. The rare beds that existed filled in the first days of the flu pandemic. Families were left to care for their loved ones at home, with many family members becoming infected. The last hundred years have given us much knowledge about viruses. This understanding prompted earlier action in our COVID-19 pandemic. Physical distancing secured our hospital capacity. We haven’t had to care for critically ill loved ones at home. Pregnant women do not need to be doctor and nurse for their dying husbands. By Staying Home and Staying Healthy, we have saved lives!

But my Mom worries. She is concerned that people aren’t following physical distancing. She is troubled that reopening will be rushed, done too quickly, recklessly. If people stop maintaining distance, if masks aren’t worn, if people aren’t diligent about washing their hands and using sanitizer, COVID-19 could surge. “We need to be careful.”

The economy weighs on her mind as well. After all, every day of her childhood was shaped by the Great Depression. She knows poverty in which toys were a stick with a rag tied around it and a luxury was the single weak light bulb hanging in the kitchen. The shuttering of businesses and the many people in town without a paycheck saddens her. But to move too quickly only to have people grow ill and stores close again is a worse outcome.

At the same time, Mom is as socially active as ever, maybe more so! People call her throughout the day, checking in, sharing how they and their kids and their grandkids are muddling along under COVID-19. Often the calls hit double digits for the day. She concludes, “People are so kind and thoughtful. It gives me hope. It makes me feel we will do the right thing.  Someday we will be well again.”

Looking for More Information?

If you’d like to learn more information on the similarities and differences between these two pandemics, check out these links.

CIDRAP – Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy‘Great Influenza’ author talks COVID-19, 1918 flu – Here’s How COVID-19 Compares to Past Outbreaks

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed: COVID-19 is not your great-grandfather’s flu.