Ghosts of the past come rushing back
By Oby Brown
May is National Preservation Month, and in an effort to offer a historical perspective, we invited Historic Macon Foundation to share. A Macon history buff and devout University of Georgia football fan, Oby Brown works with Historic Macon.
Social distancing — and disruption. The closing of schools, factories, small businesses and churches. Quarantines. Panic buying.
They’re all making the news these days, harkening back to the so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918.
An estimated 30,000 Georgians died from it. All told, about 675,000 Americans succumbed, most of them young adults 20 to 40 years old. Worldwide death estimates range from 50 million to 100 million — many of them soldiers, in trenches and barracks.
Back then there were no vaccines, antibiotics or electron microscopes. Health officials could not test people with mild symptoms so they could self-quarantine. There was little protective equipment for health-care workers. And it was almost impossible to trace contacts, since this particular strain of flu seemed to engulf entire communities so quickly.
The outbreak came in waves. The first one hit that spring. The second, in the fall, was the deadliest. (Health officials are worried about that prospect now in the face of our current circumstances.)
In all, a half-billion people were infected — about a third of the world’s population at the time. One estimate says the virus infected up to a quarter of the American population of about 103 million people.
It was a silent foe for months. In Georgia, the flu wave hit Camp Hancock near Augusta in early October. Recruits received physicals, then were sent off to crowded training camps for later deployment to Europe to fight in World War I. Military trains brought the virus to camps near Atlanta, Columbus and Macon — Camp Wheeler — before it spread to nearby cities. (Camp Wheeler had just dealt with a measles epidemic the year before.)
“Today in Georgia History” pegs the date the virus descended on Macon as Oct. 15, 1918: “The Spanish influenza epidemic sweeping the nation hit Macon, with 250 new cases reported in the previous 48 hours.”
Two huge forces were at cross-purposes that fall: continued soldier recruitment to fight (and the close quarters that effort entailed, from military trains to troopships), and the need for social distancing and shutting down activity to quell the virus’ spread.
It’s hard to believe, but the virus and its devastation weren’t often front-page news at the time, at least in Macon.
The major countries fighting in the war didn’t want to give their enemies any advantage, so the extent of the flu’s rampage — from both local and national leaders — was often minimized. There was wartime morale to consider. And officials wanted to preserve public order and avoid panic.
Dispatches about the flu often ran on page 3 inside The Macon Daily Telegraph, said Joe Kovac Jr., a senior reporter for The Telegraph who looked at the paper’s coverage and tweeted about the outbreak recently:
“Our Spanish Flu coverage in Macon in October 1918 included an editorial on embracing inconveniences to avoid spread. (Wearing masks appears to have been encouraged: ‘A city of bandaged faces is better than coffins piled up in our morgues.’)”
One subhead read: “Total of 191 New Cases Are Reported at Health Office, 46 Being from Payne’s Mill.
As for our current challenge, we don’t know yet if the past is prologue, as Shakespeare told us. But we do know this: In this time of great uncertainty, what has gotten us through other national crises will serve us well now. Setting aside differences and pulling together. Helping each other however we can, from a video call to a grocery run for an older neighbor. Staying connected, through social media or across a backyard fence. Letting others know they are not alone.
Stay safe and take care. And let us hear from you.