Spanish flu exhibit reveals parallels between 1918 and 2020 pandemics

Display provides comprehensive look at outbreak in words, images

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When she was conducting research for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic exhibit that opened in October at the Litchfield Park Historical Society Museum, Lisa Hegarty had no idea history would repeat itself a few short months later when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nor the parallels she would see between then and now.

The exhibit, The Spanish Flu of 1918: A Pandemic’s Local Legacy, was a joint project of the Litchfield Park and Three Rivers historical society, curated by Ms. Hegarty. It explores the history and origins of the flu, the pandemic’s impact on the state and local communities and science of the flu, and will be open to the public once the museum reopens.

“It just intrigued me, this global event that you can narrow down into tiny little Litchfield Park and you have this connection to this world event,” Ms. Hegarty said April 30 during a socially-distanced interview at the museum, 13912 W. Camelback Road, Litchfield Park.

The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide in less than two years, including 675,000 Americans. It left a large local imprint, Ms. Hegarty said.

Arizona wasn’t impacted during the first wave of flu that spread through other parts of the country in early 1918, but the second wave in October hit the state like a sledgehammer, with communities scrambling for resources as the public panicked. Emergency hospitals were set up in public buildings like gymnasiums and schools, and some communities had little more than tents to house those who fell ill, Ms. Hegarty said.

Litchfield Park set up a temporary emergency hospital near Old Litchfield Road just a few yards west of the Wigwam Resort. A permanent building replaced the temporary structure on the site in late 1919, and served the health needs of the community until 1932. The building later housed Wigwam employees before it was razed in 1986, she said.

Another local monument tied to the pandemic is Goodyear Farms Historic Cemetery at 3900 Santa Fe Trail in Avondale. Initially called Pioneer Cemetery then Litchfield Cemetery, it was established in 1917 as the final resting place of those who worked at the Wigwam Resort and in the fields that supplied cotton for Goodyear Tire & Rubber’s World War I manufacturing effort.

Many of those buried there died in the 1918 pandemic, Ms. Hegarty said. Their names were lost to history as the wooden crosses that bore their names succumbed to the elements, but their unmarked graves, covered by thin layers of deteriorating concrete, fill row after row in the cemetery.

Some of the similarities

SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is not the flu, but just like 1918, there is no vaccine to combat the virus.

Public health agencies were in their infancy back then, and scientists “were on the cusp of developing vaccines,” Ms. Hegarty said. “They weren’t successful until the 1930s.” Potential vaccines to combat the coronavirus are being tested, but for now the only lines of defense are similar to those available in 1918 — social distancing, regularly disinfecting surfaces and hands, wearing masks and refraining from touching your face.

During her research, Ms. Hegarty read John M. Barry’s 2004 book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” articles and papers examining how the pandemic played out, and articles published in newspapers at the time.

“It was interesting to get an insight into the mindset,” she said. “The public and government responses are similar.”

Information was inconsistent. The Navajo Nation was hit hard. People and businesses initially pushed back against social distancing, bristled at wearing masks and staged public protests. Some were arrested.

Some government officials also took the threats more seriously than others. A 1918 photo included in the exhibit shows Arizona Gov. George W.P. Hunt setting an example by wearing a mask while standing with another man in Phoenix.

In a 1984 article, “To mask or not to mask,” published by the Arizona Historical Society, author Bradford Luckingham wrote that on Oct. 10, 1918, the state’s superintendent of public health shared guidance from U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue that communities should take strict measures to combat the flu by closing public gathering places. Mr. Blue also ordered physicians to report influenza cases immediately and said people who were infected should be quarantined.

Tucson Mayor O.C. Parker immediately ordered schools, churches, theaters and “all other places where people congregate” to close. Police were instructed to prevent people from congregating, tourist attractions closed and the University of Arizona suspended classes. Within a week, 120 cases were reported at the campus, city hospitals were filled with patients and an emergency hospital was set up in the university gym to accommodate sick students.

“At the same time, complaints could be heard in Tucson from individuals and groups adversely affected by official action to curb the epidemic. Especially vocal were the owners of business establishments losing money, but a variety of interests, including those connected with religious and educational institutions, expressed criticism,” Mr. Luckingham wrote. “The epidemic continued to worsen, however, and local officials refused to ‘reopen the city.’ Instead, they urged the public to abide by the rules and regulations.”

The fight over masks ensued when officials suggested the public wear them because officials in San Francisco enforced their use during the first wave and erroneously believed masks flattened the 1918 curve in their city.

In 2020, health officials know that masks aren’t a complete safeguard, but have recommended their use and received similar push back.

Another similarity Ms. Hegarty discovered was panic-buying.

“It was a great time for Vicks VapoRub,” she said. “They couldn’t keep it in stock. According to the company’s website, VapoRub sales were so robust during the pandemic that its manufacturing plant operated day and night to keep up with orders, and sales skyrocketed from $900,000 to $2.9 million in just one year.

In addition to replicas of Vicks advertisements, the exhibit includes ads for Lifebuoy soap, and “magic” elixirs that hucksters claimed could cure the flu.

The news then and now

One difference Ms. Hegarty found between the pandemics is the news coverage.

In 2020, people are inundated by COVID-19 reports online, in print, and on TV and radio. In 1918, newspapers were the primary purveyors of news and they largely ignored the pandemic until it reached crisis proportions in their communities, according to Mr. Barry’s book.

One of Ms. Hegarty’s favorite passages in the book deals with news coverage in Phoenix.

“At the beginning of the epidemic its newspapers had behaved as did those everywhere else, saying little, reassuring, insisting that fear was more dangerous than the disease,” Mr. Barry wrote. “But the virus took its time there, lingered longer than elsewhere, lingered until finally even the press expressed fear. On November 8, the Arizona Republican warned, ‘The people of Phoenix are facing a crisis. The [epidemic] has reached such serious proportions that it is the first problem before the people ... Almost every home in the city has been stricken with the plague.’

“The war was three days from ending, and several false peaces had been announced. Still, for that newspaper to call influenza ‘the first problem’ while the war continued was extraordinary,” Mr. Barry wrote.

“Whole city is to be masked this morning” proclaimed a dramatic late November Arizona Republican article included in the exhibit.

“Life-time friends may pass each other on the streets of Phoenix today unrecognized. Husbands and wives may become separated. Children may lose their parents. Dogs may follow the wrong person home,” read the story. “All this because ... Beginning at 6 o’clock this morning no person may appear on the streets, in business houses or other public places in Phoenix without wearing an influenza mask ... Individual homes are the only places where a person may leave off his or her mask and escape a fine.”

The story warned that those who violated the order by the city’s health officer faced fines of up to $100 and/or 30 days in jail. It went on to say that doctors favored the wearing of masks and that citizens rushed to stores for masks and materials to make gauze or cloth face coverings,.

“Everyone expressed hope that it would do some good in breaking the force of the disease,” it read.

In response to panic fueled by the increase in flu infections and coverage of what was happening, “people freaked out,” Ms. Hegarty said. “It was something they hadn’t seen before. They were baffled. They were scrambling.”

Phoenix formed a citizens’ committee to take charge, Mr. Barry wrote in his book.

“The influenza citizens’ committee ... deputized a special police force and also called upon all ‘patriotic citizens’ to enforce anti-influenza ordinances, including requiring every person in public to wear a mask, arresting anyone who spit or coughed without covering his mouth, dictating that businesses ... give twelve hundred cubic feet of air space to each customer, and halting all traffic into the city and allowing only those with ‘actual business here’ to enter,” Mr. Barry wrote. “Soon the Republican described ‘a city of masked faces, a city as grotesque as a masked carnival.’”

The ultimate impact of the flu in Phoenix was lighter than in other parts of the country, Mr. Barry wrote, but that didn’t stop Phoenicians from killing their pets and police from shooting dogs in the streets when people became convinced they spread the virus.

In some other communities around the country, many people masked their pets.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention timeline, the pandemic ended in the summer of 1919 after a third wave swept through the country earlier in the year.

Like others, Ms. Hegarty said she is following the news, watching to see how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

Like the 1918 pandemic, only time will tell.

Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at kosullivan@newszap.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA

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