Wed | Apr 8, 2020

COVID-19: Social distancing and the tale of two cities

Published:Wednesday | March 25, 2020 | 12:12 AM

IN SEVERAL news briefs, recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appealed to Americans to isolate themselves during this period of the virulent COVID-19 outbreak. In Florida, when persons were ordered to stay home, they headed for the beaches in droves.

Here at home, there are still those who are trying to find every excuse to come together. Others even want Champs and the Olympics to go on. Perhaps they can be forgiven because they were never exposed to the lessons of history as it relates to infectious diseases.

Permit me to share a short lesson with my brothers and sisters.

In March of 1918, during World War I, millions of young men volunteered and were conscripted into service. Word first came from Kansas, where recruits were crowded into Camp Funston, hastily built to train Americans in that area for combat. Doctors there were baffled, as many of these healthy, young farm boys were suffering from ‘grippe’, as it was then called. Some soon died, turning blue before chocking on their own mucus and blood.

When boatloads of them shipped out, the virus went with them. By May 1918, a million of them had landed in France. Influenza blazed across Europe like wildfire, affecting the war, as more than 200,000 French and English soldiers were too sick to fight and the Grand British Fleet was unable to weigh anchor in May. American soldiers were battling German gas attacks – and the flu. On the other side of the barbed wire, a major German offensive came to a halt in June when the Kaiser’s ranks were too ill for duty.

As summer came, the flu seemed to subside. But this was like the eye of a hurricane. It returned with a vengeance around September.

In Philadelphia – ‘the City of Brotherly Love’ – a grand parade was planned. Known as the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive, the objective was to bolster morale and support for the war effort. Persons in the medical field warned against a gathering which would have large crowds huddled. But even the media disagreed.

Here is what the Philadelphia Inquirer had to say in its editorial on October 5, “... Talk of cheerful things, instead of disease...The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?” So the health commissioner – a political appointee – decided to proceed.

SPANISH FLU

When the parade stepped off on September 28, about 200,000 wildly cheering Philadelphians were packed like sardines on Broad Street. ‘Pripsing’ the parade from close quarters was the invisible peril – influenza. The crowd was exposed, en masse, to a lethal contagion later dubbed – incorrectly – as the Spanish flu. Within 72 hours, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled.

In the week ending October 5, 2,600 people in the city had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, the number of deaths had risen to 4,500. Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death. City officials decided to close down Philadelphia, including schools, churches, bars, etc. Casket prices skyrocketed, relatives had to bury their own. But it was all too late.

The public health response in St Louis was entirely different. Before the first case had been reported in the city, Health Commissioner Dr Max Starkloff had local doctors on high alert. He then penned an editorial in the St Louis Post-Dispatch, stressing the importance of avoiding crowds. When the first case was confirmed, Dr Starkloff immediately closed schools, theatres, pool halls, and other places where people gathered. Businessmen protested, but Starkloff and the mayor stood their ground. Sick persons were treated by volunteer nurses at home.

According to a 2007 analysis of the 1918 flu death records, the peak mortality rate in St Louis was only one-eighth of Philadelphia’s death rate at its worst.

October 1918 was the deadliest month in US history, and 1918 was the deadliest year. Deadlier than all their wars combined. And it wasn’t a nuclear bomb.

COMMUNICABLE DISEASES LOVE CROWDS

Jamaica’s health minister and his staff have been cited by the World Health Organization and other international organisations for the excellent way they are handling this crisis. But they cannot be everywhere.

In my snooping, I have watched minibuses continue to pack persons like sardines before driving off. There are some ‘HIDEOUTS’ where liquor is being served. They are so crowded, the barmaid can barely be seen. This is crazy.

Two busloads can negate everything the Government is achieving. One ‘HIDEOUT’ can do the same. Come on, guys, we are not saving the Government’s reputation, we are saving our lives!

It should be noted that during that 1918 flu season, 675,000 Americans died from the flu and its complications. Around the world, 500 million people were affected, and between 50 million and 100 million died.

Flu, COVID-19 and other communicable diseases love crowds.

Glenn Tucker, MBA, is a former president of the Mico Historical Society. Email feedback to glenntucker2011@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com.