By Carole Copeland Thomas
Periodic flashbacks of conversations with my late mother, Gwendolyn Charleston Copeland, come roaring back in my head from time to time. “Yes, your grandfather’s eyesight was indirectly affected by the Great Influenza of 1918. He had to go to eye specialists for treatment before he fully recovered some years later,” my mother would remind me. My grandfather was Rev. James Arminius Charleston, a well-respected pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). During that era, he pastored Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the birthplace my mother. He later pastored other churches in the midwest and, ultimately St. Paul AME in Detroit.
That family story is one I am now researching and makes the 1918 Spanish Influenza a relevant historic event in my search for truth.
Little did I realize how much that event compares with the raging pandemic of COVID-19, some 102 years later. And when you watch the documentaries and read the books on that tragic event that killed between 50-100 million people worldwide, the similarities will make you weep.
Case in point. Pubic health officials begged organizers and elected officials to cancel the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive Parade in Philadelphia on September 28, 1918. Other cities realized the rapid spread of the deadly influenza virus and canceled their celebrations. Yet the Philadelphia decision-makers ignored the medical professionals and held the parade anyway. The results were a devastatingly high loss of life, killing World War I soldiers, ordinary families, and the innocent equally by the menacing flu virus.
An article in the September 2018 Smithsonian Magazine described it this way:
"Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. With many of the city’s health professionals pressed into military service, Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death.
Attempting to slow the carnage, city leaders essentially closed down Philadelphia. On October 3, officials shuttered most public spaces – including schools, churches, theaters and pool halls. But the calamity was relentless. Understaffed hospitals were crippled. Morgues and undertakers could not keep pace with demand. Grieving families had to bury their own dead. Casket prices skyrocketed. The phrase “bodies stacked like cordwood” became a common refrain. And news reports and rumors soon spread that the Germans –the “Huns” – had unleashed the epidemic." *
Fast forward to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Alarm bells rung by medical professionals in the US and around the world about inadequate medical supplies and ventilators. Delayed responses by elected officials who are urged to put their countries, states, or municipalities in lockdown. Hospital beds in short supply. And the general public forced to quarantine at home to save their lives.
In both 1918 and 2020, healthcare professionals were first responders, industry experts, and clarion callers in a world turned upside down. The 1918 flu pandemic was further complicated by the fighting forces during World War 1. Healthcare professionals 102 years apart stand shoulder to shoulder in agreement with keeping the general public acutely aware of how to stay safe when a pandemic virus spreads like wildfire.
Our modern-day heroes are the men and women in healthcare. It doesn’t matter what positions they hold, from doctors to hospital administration executives to nurses, to lab technicians, to dietary aides to the cleaning staff. They ALL play a vital role in the fight against COVID-19. Overcrowded hospitals, nursing/veteran home scares, long hours, countless sick patients, and the steady uptick of the dying have become the order of the day for our frontline healthcare professionals. They deserve our attention and our respect as they wage germ warfare in regions across the world.
As my mother reminded me about my grandfather’s condition, we are reminded today about how one virus can knock out whole populations in the blink of an eye. In 1918, it was the flu virus. In 2020 the coronavirus looms large. And our future largely lies in the hands of millions of healthcare professionals who save lives through their sacrificial service throughout our communities.
To all of our healthcare professionals, we salute you because of your selflessness in the face of danger and uncertainty.
Resources For Research
World War 1: 100 Years Later
Philadelphia Threw a WW1 Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers The Flu
By Kenneth C. Davis
The Great Influenza
By John M. Barry
Watch this 2005 interview of John M. Barry. He authored the book: The Great Influenza: The A Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. The book details the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. Sadly, we are repeating some of the same obstacles that occurred 102 years ago. It took him seven years to write this book.
1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic
Here is an excellent documentary about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Although a different germ, the response and reactions are eerily similar to what we are dealing with during this coronavirus pandemic. And to think someone 102 years later… We are repeating history!
The Center For Disease Control
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the leading national public health institute of the United States. It is a United States federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services and is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.
Its main goal is to protect public health and safety through the control and prevention of disease, injury, and disability in the US and internationally. The CDC focuses national attention on developing and applying disease control and prevention. It especially focuses its attention on infectious disease, foodborne pathogens, environmental health, occupational safety and health, health promotion, injury prevention, and educational activities designed to improve the health of United States citizens.
The World Health Organization
The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. It is part of the UN Sustainable Development Group. The WHO Constitution, which establishes the agency's governing structure and principles, states its main objective as ensuring "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health." It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with six semi-autonomous regional offices and 150 field offices worldwide.
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Carole Copeland Thomas is a 27 year speaker, trainer and consultant specializing in global diversity, empowerment, multiculturalism and leadership issues.