There’s nothing like a little pandemic to scare the bejeezus out of people.
That’s what we’ve gotten with the outbreak of the coronavirus strain COVID-19 that spread rapidly from China to South Korea, Italy, Iran and other countries and has thus far infected more than 90,000 people worldwide and caused more than 3,000 deaths — including 11 Americans by midweek.
The spread of the virus has roiled Wall Street, cratering stocks two weeks ago and now flip-flopping with volatility every other day, it seems. Schools have been temporarily closed around the world disrupting education for 290 million students, including a dozen schools near Seattle. Emergency orders have been issued in California, cruise ships and airlines have curtailed voyages and flights and there has been some panic buying in spots of the U.S. with hoarders snapping up supplies of largely ineffective surgical masks, bottled water, bleach, sanitary wipes and even emptying the shelves of toilet paper in some cities. And, in a little bit of irony, the release of the new James Bond film, “No Time To Die,” has been pushed back until November over coronavirus worries.
Slow your roll, America. Yes, the coronavirus is cause for concern, even a bit of alarm, but it’s best dealt with by preparation, medical responses and commonsense hygiene precautions and not panic.
A little perspective goes a long way, too. Yes, there have been 3,000 deaths across the globe, but the bulk of them have been in China where the outbreak first occurred. Yes, the death toll will probably rise, but to put it in perspective, the common flu virus caused 16,000 flu-related deaths last year and 61,000 deaths the year before right here in the United States.
If you want a pandemic, we give you the Spanish flu. No, you don’t remember it, nor do we. It swept across the world 102 years ago in 1918 and at first it was largely hushed up because there was a war on, the First World War. Britain, France, Germany, the U.S. and other European governments largely censored reports of the outbreak for military reasons. Spain, however, was neutral and the government and newspapers reported on it — so when it spread elsewhere it was misnamed the “Spanish flu.”
And it was a killer. Before it was done, the Spanish flu had infected 500 million people around the world – more than a quarter of the world population at the time — and killed an estimated 50 million. Unlike other flus, it attacked healthy young people and that made the soldiers in crowded trenches and staging areas particularly susceptible and contagious.
It likely made its way to Boston on a troop carrier in the early fall of 1918, A recent Washington Post story on the Spanish flu related how Philadelphia had planned the largest parade in the city’s history and just before the scheduled event 300 returning soldiers began spreading the virus. Doctors were telling reporters the parade shouldn’t happen — but because of the war and the self-censorship by papers nothing was printed. The parade went on and two days later, Spanish flu slammed the city — closing schools and resulting in a ban on public gatherings. More than 12,500 Philadelphians died in the outbreak.
The wartime news control was felt here in Wisconsin as well, according to the Post report. When the Jefferson County Union warned about the seriousness of Spanish flu on Sept. 27, 1918, a U.S. Army general quickly began prosecution against the paper under a wartime sedition act, claiming it had “depressed morale,” the Post story said.
By then the cat was out of the bag. Wisconsin was fortunate to have the infrastructure for a modern public health system and had created a State Board of Health with powers to issue quarantine orders and backed it up further when the Legislature required all municipalities to appoint local health boards and health officers, according to “The Great War Comes to Wisconsin” by Richard L. Pifer and Marjorie Hannon Pifer, that was recently excerpted by Wiscontext, a service of Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.
Within a month of the Jefferson Times Union news report, the state took action.
The Pifers wrote: “Without knowing how to stop the epidemic, Wisconsin took one of the few effective steps to curb transmission: It limited the places people congregated. On October 10, 1918, Cornelius Harper, the state health officers, consulted with Governor (Emanuel) Philipp and then issued an order instructing all local boards of health ‘to immediately close all schools, theaters, moving picture houses, other places of public amusement and public gatherings for an indefinite period of time.’ The order effectively closed every public establishment and gathering place, including churches, except for places of regular employment. In many communities, schools and theaters closed for four weeks and churches locked their doors for three weeks.”
With its rapid response, Wisconsin fared better than eastern states, but even then the Spanish flu hit an estimated 103,000 state residents and flu-related casualties here in the Badger State reached 8,459 dead — more than four times the number of Wisconsinites who died in World War I. Nationwide, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans.
There’s your historical perspective on pandemics.
We’re not saying the coronavirus — with its 3,000 deaths — is nothing to be alarmed about. But we should remember that we have made great medical progress over the years and that U.S. health officials are working hard to blunt the spread of the virus by expediting the shipment of testing kits, preparing for possible quarantines and isolation if the disease becomes more widespread, and working on a vaccine. This week, Wisconsin received $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control to help address the virus. In Congress, the House and Senate passed an $8.3 billion measure to battle coronavirus and sent it on to President Donald Trump, who signed it Friday. At a briefing on COVID-19 in Madison this week, state health officials said there is not a need here in Wisconsin at this time to declare a public health emergency, but they’re taking preparations to make sure the state is ready.
Preparation, not panic. And if you have a cough or the sniffles — even if it’s the regular flu — do us all a favor and stay at home. Stop shaking hands for a while. Use a handkerchief or tissue if you sneeze.