How Does the Current Health Crisis Compare to the Spanish Flu? John Gurda Explains

“It’s extraordinary, but it’s not unprecedented.”

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During Tuesday’s lunchtime livestream, Milwaukee Magazine’s Editor and Publisher, Carole Nicksin, talked to Milwaukee writer and historian, John Gurda. They sat down to chat about Milwaukee during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and its similarities and differences between what we’re experiencing today with the COVID-19 crisis.

Gurda himself has been at home, sheltering in place. However, his wife has recently come down with a fever and a cough. She recently took a COVID-19 test – they won’t know for between five to nine days if she has tested positive for the virus or not. Gurda explains that it is easy to view the virus as something that is happening elsewhere and to other people, but that’s not necessarily always the case.

In many ways, what we’re experiencing right now has similarities and differences to the 1918 Spanish Influenza that had worldwide death rates estimated between 20 million to upwards of 50 million people. 

“One of the lessons of history is everything’s the first time, but nothing’s new,” the historian said. “It’s kind of paradoxical. Every generation lives its own experience, so this is all fresh to us but in so many ways we kind of repeat experiences of our own ancestors.”

 During the Spanish flu, 102 years ago, one of these similarities was that they socially distanced themselves, too. “They didn’t use terms like social distancing or sheltering in place but that’s just what was going on,” explained Gurda.

The virus was believed to have begun with American soldiers during World War I. It is believed that it was brought over to Europe with those soldiers, where the virus then mutated. This mutated version was then brought back to the U.S. with the returning soldiers where it flourished into the 1918 epidemic that we know as the Spanish Influenza.

“In Milwaukee, the best theory is that it came to our town from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, which is down just South of the Illinois border,” said Gurda, explaining that Milwaukee was known as a good leave town for sailors.

Also, like COVID-19, the Spanish flu was largely respiratory. If someone coughed in a crowded streetcar –today’s equivalent of mass transportation, which did not exist back then – it spread like wildfire.

Much like the version of Milwaukee we are living in today, back in 1918, Milwaukee was also shut down during the epidemic. From churches to movie theaters, the city was essentially closed. Funerals and weddings could still occur, but only relatives were in attendance. Major employers stayed open, but those who worked had to wear masks. Hospitals were also overwhelmed and two temporary hospitals were set up.

“It was really in an awful lot of ways, kind of afore case of what we’re feeling here in 2020,” said Gurda.

Unlike today, however, there was no television or radio to keep people occupied. Everything was predominantly print.

“We had this catechism of caution, as we called it, and it was this blanket campaign to get people to understand that this was a real threat, a pernicious threat, and one that could get anyone regardless of your economic status, your ethnicity, or whatever,” explained Gurda. “This was something that affected all of us, and by and large, people responded as they have today.”

One qualification to this – and very on-brand for Milwaukee – was the saloons. “You could still get inside and get a drink if you didn’t stay. This was still Milwaukee,” said Gurda.

With the 1918 Spanish flu, there was a second wave of the virus, but after this second wave, things gradually started opening up again. “The movie theaters and churches opened, but only every other row was available,” said Gurda. “You couldn’t be more than 50 percent capacity. It was an attempt to keep the demand low and keep congregating to a minimum.”

By the end of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, Milwaukee ended up being one of the healthiest cities in the country with 30,000 Milwaukee citizens that were sick with the flu, but with a death toll of only 500 dead.

As for what Gurda has to say about COVID-19 in regard to the Spanish flu, “People talk about what’s going on today as unprecedented. No, it’s not. It’s extraordinary, but it’s not unprecedented.”

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Allie is an Editorial Intern at Milwaukee Magazine. She is a senior at UW-Milwaukee studying Creative Writing and Journalism. You can follow her on Instagram at @alliehabck