15 March 2020

Ignoring our Grandparents' Stories

Yah, yah, yah... "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.1 "

Vårt Land, 18 October 1918, p 8 (back page). Strong measures ordered by the
Department of Health to stem the outbreak of the Spanish flu, including closure
 of schools, churches, theaters and other gatherings in Jamestown. It also called
 for people who were sick to remain at home and for those people who were healthy
 to minimize their own possible exposure. 
History provides an enormous base of data (personal stories) that we can mine to learn about positive and negative responses to big events, like a pandemic.  I've heard some news reports declaring that the closing of schools and churches is unprecedented. But, we've had this experience before.

My grandmother remembered that she was kept home from school in Jamestown for several weeks during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919; she didn't have bad memories from this time, only that it was unusual.  Her generation is no longer with us to provide their personal experiences, but a century of research and analysis of this major pandemic has informed our Public Health systems and the specialization in Epidemiology.

I have been reading articles that appeared in our local newspaper, the Jamestown Evening Journal, during this period.  One news story discussed local efforts to get food to those who were sick and quarantined at home.

I found this blog The Flu Epidemic of 1918  by Pauline Toole on the NYC Department of Records & Information Services website to be interesting.  I wish all the best to that department and those with similar responsibilities during this crisis.  In Spain this week (which is not where the Spanish flu originated2   – take that Kansas! ) people were on their balconies cheering and clapping for their health workers.  This is going to be a long slog for all those in this calling and we need to do all that we can to make their efforts more effective and safe.

  1. "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana, Common Sense, Vol 1 (1905), p 284. 
  2. The origin of the naming of the influenza outbreak in 1918 that came to be called the Spanish flu is explained in this paper by Jonas Holtenius and Anna Gillman:  The Spanish flu in Uppsala, clinical and epidemiological impact of the influenza pandemic 1918–1919 on a Swedish county,  and an interesting side note about current tinkering with history was written by Catte Black. "Wikipedia Slashes Spanish Flu Death Rate From 20% to 2% is a quite a drop. What’s going on?"