by Brendan Battle, BGSU History major. This is one in a series of posts written by students in HIST 4800 in Spring, 2020, putting our world into historical context for the public.

American Response to Epidemics: Compare and Contrast

            The United States and the world are in the midst of the worst international pandemic in generations, the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. The virus has claimed tens of thousands of lives and transformed everyday life as people, governments, and businesses struggle to respond to the highly virulent and deadly disease. However, this is not the first time the nation has been locked down by disease, with similar events occurring due to the 1918 influenza pandemic, popularly known as the “Spanish Flu.” The virus is estimated to have infected roughly five hundred million people, nearly a third of the world’s population at the time and claimed the lives of more than fifty million people, with over 500,000 of those deaths occurring in the United States.[1] Responses to both pandemics show weaknesses in our social systems and a conflict between interests of public safety and economic and political goals. The measures taken by our national, state, and city governments in response to our current pandemic show close similarities in both the successes and failures over one hundred years apart.

  • Many Americans are forced to work from home with offices and businesses closed – Link

Over the past few months, the pandemic has brought dramatic changes into the lives of Americans like no other event in recent memory. As of this writing, much of the United States is still shut down, with schools and non-essential businesses being closed indefinitely to prevent the spread of the virus, which can be transmitted through physical contact and through the air. Citizens are advised to practice “social distancing” and avoid meeting others in public spaces or making close physical contact and are advised or ordered to wear facial masks in public.[2] This practice of quarantine has been shown to be effective in the past at halting the spread of disease, and similar tactics were employed in 1918. The governments of many major cities such as New York, Boston, and San Diego ordered the closure of public facilities and gathering places such as schools, theaters, libraries, and churches to halt the spread of the epidemic, with the police being authorized to enforce the order.[3] Major sporting events were cancelled indefinitely across the country, as noted in the New York Times: “The attractive schedule of college football games which were to have been played have been cancelled throughout the East because of the Spanish influenza epidemic…at New Brunswick, the students are under strict orders not to leave the campus, and at several other colleges the same drastic rule is in effect.”[4]

  • Public facilities such as movie theaters and playgrounds are closed off by government order to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • To prevent gatherings of large crowds, the capacity of restaurants and grocery stores has been strictly tightened, with many restaurants being restricted to carry-out or delivery only.

            These orders have been met with resistance; protestors, supported by President Donald Trump and other political leaders and celebrities, defy stay-at-home orders to demand that state governments “reopen America,” even as public health experts warn that lifting the quarantine is still unsafe.[5] A similar pattern was seen in the fall of 1918, as after months of closures, general frustration with the quarantine as cases of influenza dropped and fear for the profits of closed businesses led to pressure on state and city governments. The lifting of the lid by the end of the year brought out massive crowds as businesses offered sales and movies and other events were overcrowded, despite warnings, and regulations for the wearing of masks and capacity limits in buildings could not be enforced in many places. In many places, this brought about a resurgence of the virus by the beginning of 1919.[6] This risk was then understood by health professionals: the Nebraska State Board of Health issued a notice in 1919 warning against premature lifting of quarantine: “Experience has shown that the closing of certain places that permit the congregating of large numbers of people, does good. On the other hand, it must be admitted that just as soon as the ban has been raised, only for the ban to again be ordered. This cannot keep up indefinitely.”[7]

In addition to resistance to quarantine orders, other social factors have worsened the pandemics both in 1918 and in 2020. One factor that facilitated the 1918 epidemic’s spread was the overcrowded and unclean tenement neighborhoods rife with illness. New York Health Commissioner Dr. Royal Copeland stated that his job was made harder by the poor material conditions of many children in the city. “We have practically 1,000,000 children in public schools, and about 750,000 come from tenement homes. These homes are frequently unsanitary and overcrowded. The children’s parents are occupied with the manifold duties of keeping the wolf from the door…they do not have the time to give the necessary attention to the initial symptoms of the disease.”[8] The deaths from the influenza were also worsened by World War I, which was then ongoing in Europe; many of the country’s doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals were deployed to Europe before the plague hit, weakening the United States’ ability to respond to the medical crisis. War bond-selling “Liberty Loan” events such as public meetings and parades were not closed in many cases. The government decided that the war effort was more important than halting the virus’ transmission.[9] Today, similar social problems are highlighted by the virus, as vulnerable populations, such as the homeless and the incarcerated, suffer from greatly increased rates of the disease.[10]

Works Cited

“1918 Pandemic: H1N1 Virus.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 March 2019. Accessed 14 May 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-   h1n1.html

Bond, Allison. “As Covid-19 surges among San Francisco’s homeless, doctors face difficult choices.” Slate, 11 April 2020. Accessed 14 May 2020.    https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/11/coronavirus-san-francisco-homeless-doctors-   difficult-choices/

Berg, Kara. “Protesters to ‘gridlock’ streets around Capitol to protest Whitmer’s stay-home order.” Lansing State Journal, 13 April 2020. Accessed 14 May 2020.            https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/2020/04/13/protest-planned-around-capitol-against-whitmers-stay-home-order/2981130001/

Clark, Robert A. “SPANISH INFLUENZA 1918–19 OVERVIEW.” In Business Continuity and the Pandemic Threat, 90–97. Ely, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom: IT Governance Publishing, 2016. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bj4sz2.10.

Gamble, Vanessa Northington. “”There Wasn’t a Lot of Comforts in Those Days:” African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.” Public Health Reports    (1974-) 125 (2010): 114-22. Accessed April 30, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/41435305.

“Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time.” The New York Times, 17 November 1918.

Higgins, Jim. “An Epidemic’s Strawman: Wilmer Krusen, Philadelphia’s 1918–1919 Influenza     Epidemic, and Historical Memory.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and  Biography, vol. 144, no. 1, 2020, pp. 61–88. JSTOR,     www.jstor.org/stable/10.5215/pennmaghistbio.144.1.0061. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.

Luckingham, Bradford. “TO MASK OR NOT TO MASK: A Note on the 1918 Spanish    Influenza Epidemic in Tucson.” The Journal of Arizona History 25, no. 2 (1984): 191-204. Accessed April 30, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/41859568.

Martinez-Catsam, Ana Luisa. “Desolate Streets: The Spanish Influenza in San Antonio.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 116, no. 3 (2013): 286–303. www.jstor.org/stable/24388347.

Rogers, Rodney. “BGSU Announces Proactive COVID-19 Response.” 10 March 2020.

“Spread of Influenza Prevents Many College Games Today.” The New York Times, 12 October 1918.

State of Michigan, Executive Officer of the Governor [Gretchen Whitmer]. Executive Order 2020-21: Covid-19.  https://www.michigan.gov/whitmer/0,9309,7-387-90499_90705-       522626–,00.html

“To the Public.” The Alliance Herald, 09 January 1919. Chronicling America, U.S. Library of Congress. Accessed 14 May 2020.


[1] “1918 Pandemic: H1N1 Virus,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 March 2019.

[2] State of Michigan, Executive Officer of the Governor [Gretchen Whitmer], Executive Order 2020-21: Covid-19.

[3] Ana Luisa Martinez-Catsam, “Desolate Streets: The Spanish Influenza in San Antonio,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 116, no. 3 (2013): 286–303.

[4] “Spread of Influenza Prevents Many College Games Today,” The New York Times, 12 October 1918.

[5] Kara Berg, “Protesters to ‘gridlock’ streets around Capitol to protest Whitmer’s stay-home order,” Lansing State Journal, 13 April 2020.

[6] Luckingham, Bradford, “TO MASK OR NOT TO MASK: A Note on the 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic in Tucson,” The Journal of Arizona History 25, no. 2 (1984): 191-204.

[7] “To the Public,” The Alliance Herald (09 January 1919), Chronicling America (U.S. Library of Congress), Accessed 14 May 2020.

[8] “Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time,” The New York Times (17 November 1918).

[9] Jim Higgins, “An Epidemic’s Strawman: Wilmer Krusen, Philadelphia’s 1918–1919 Influenza Epidemic, and Historical Memory,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 144, no. 1, 2020, pp. 61–88.

[10] Allison Bond, “As Covid-19 surges among San Francisco’s homeless, doctors face difficult choices,” Slate, 11 April 2020.