Old Versus New Pandemics
2020 is certainly a year for the history books, so it’s no surprise that the 23rd annual Frieze Lecture Series at the Rock Island Public Library will take a deeper look at our reaction to global pandemics, past and present.
The free, two-part series will be presented by Augustana College professors with expertise in history and public health. The lectures will be offered online at 2 p.m. on two Tuesdays, Oct. 20 and 27.
Oct. 20 is “Why We Forgot the 1918 Flu: A Historian Looks at a Century of Pandemics.” Dr. Lendol Calder, professor of history at Augustana College, will consider the global influenza pandemic of 1918. His presentation reviews America's response to the pandemic, as well as how the legacy of that tragedy has - and hasn't -- shaped responses to subsequent public health emergencies.
Oct. 27 is “Tip of the Iceberg: Understanding the Bigger Picture of Pandemic Disease Severity.” Dr. Rebecca Heick (hike), assistant professor of public health at Augustana, considers the rising death toll of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. While it’s understandable that the number of deaths has become a major focus of media reports and intervention efforts, mortality is just the tip of the iceberg. Over 7.9 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and it’s caused 200,000 deaths as of Oct. 14.
There have been over 7,200 positive cases in Scott and Rock Island counties, with 125 deaths caused by the virus (three times as many deaths have been in Rock Island County).
Last spring, Rebecca Heick was a prominent source of advice through a series of Covid-19 Q and A sessions on KWQC-TV. She has talked about the importance of social distancing, how to break the chain of transmission, and differences between Covid and the flu.
Calder, who specializes in American history, wants to get at a central mystery in his lecture.
“The big question I want to pose is, how did a pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans so quickly fade from national consciousness? To the point that, one year ago, if you asked me about the 1918 pandemic, I probably couldn’t have told you a single fact about it."
“It’s not in the history books, it’s not in school textbooks. Almost no great literature came out of it. Most people totally forgot about it, which sounds crazy that people could forget about our current Covid-19 pandemic. They forgot about one that was even bigger.”
He says most of his talk will be a narrative of the pandemic, with a couple lessons on how we can reflect on the current pandemic
“For example, how often medical experts can be wrong, because science looks forward and it has to make a lot of mistakes. We’ve certainly seen that this time around, too.”
For whatever reason, the 1918 outbreak was never a big story, partly because of the limited media at the time.
“Today we have a 24/7 news cycle; we have social media where private individuals can make public what their experiences are. That did not exist 100 years ago. Even worse, government officials and sometimes city leaders refused to talk about the 1918 flu. President Wilson never once mentioned the flu in any presidential communication. Then ironically, he himself died from it.”
Woodrow Wilson suffered a violent cough on April 3, 1919, and was diagnosed with the Spanish flu. He suffered a major stroke that October, and his wife Edith made decisions in his stead until he left office in 1921. He died from a stroke and heart complications at 67, in 1924.
“Consciousness and memory of it faded pretty quickly, and the reason for that is, no story, no narrative ever developed to explain the 1918 flu. And without a story, it’s hard to remember something. It kind of got lost in the much bigger story of World War I.”
Total U.S. deaths from World War I were 116,500. The Spanish flu even killed more Americans than servicemembers killed during World War II.
“Unlike the World War I event, which had bad guys and good guys, Americans struggled to tell the story about the flu. It’s invisible; people didn’t know where it came from back then. It lacked main characters; it lacked plot; it lacked a central conflict. It lacked heroes who were using some kind of instrument to defeat the monster. All the things that make a story were absent.”
Calder says actions to fight it were taken at the local and state level, while the federal government tried to ignore it.
“They hoped nobody would notice it was there, because it was considered to be a threat to national morale during the war. Cities had to step up and do something, and that’s where they had similar fights over where you should wear masks or not; whether to make them mandatory or not.”
To register for either Frieze lecture, visit www.rockislandlibrary.org. Registered participants will receive a Zoom meeting invitation via email.