100 Years Ago, One Man Figured Out How to Break a Pandemic

We’re all feeling the stress of the coronavirus. But this isn’t the first time the world has faced a pandemic. Between 1918 and 1920, a deadly flu epidemic killed millions around the globe.

When it reached America, two leaders in major cities on opposite sides of the country had drastically different responses to the viral threat. In Philadelphia, at least 12,000 died in the outbreak. However, in St. Louis, just 1,700 died from the flu. Why was there such a big difference?

City of Brotherly Love

The health commissioner in Philadelphia, Wilmer Krusen, decided to allow a huge parade to boost morale for the war effort (and sell war bonds) despite the growing threat of the Spanish Flu. On September 28, 1918, 200,000 people of all ages marched through the streets shoulder-to-shoulder.

Two days after the parade, Dr. Krusen was forced to announce, “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population.” Krusen reportedly wanted to prevent panic by carrying on business as usual. He was also pressured to ensure that as many people as possible bought those war bonds.

Thanks to his decision, at least 12,000 died in his city.

Don’t Meet Me in St. Louis

Compare that to St. Louis, where public health commissioner Max Starkloff took immediate and drastic action to stop the spread of the virus.

Despite the protests of, well, literally everyone in St. Louis, Starkloff ordered every school, movie theater, and bar to be shut down. While the Spanish Flu still wreaked havoc on the city, the fatality rate per capita was less than half of Philadelphia’s.

This old-school version of “social distancing” made a massive difference in preventing the spread of the virus and stopping the infection rate from spiking.

“Flattening the curve” is another important step in helping to shut down this pandemic. Instead of overwhelming the hospitals (as happened in Philadelphia in 1918), the slower spread of the infection means that the healthcare system has a chance of keeping up.

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What Can We Learn from the Spanish Flu?

As of right now, the CDC is recommending that gatherings of 10 or more people should be avoided. Non-essential businesses have voluntarily shut down, such as Regal Movie Theaters, but there are no legal mandates to close bars or restaurants. Everyone has to make the decision for themselves whether self-isolation is the smart decision.

According to Buzzfeed, bars in some cities have lines around the block for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Despite the fact that health officials around the globe are recommending that we all stay home and avoid other people to flatten the curve of the infection, some people still think that they shouldn’t have to put their lives on hold.

If we look at the lessons from history, however, it seems that shutting everything down is the best way to stop a pandemic.