1918 flu pandemic letters shed light on how similar coronavirus pandemic is to past outbreak

As the saying goes, “history tends to repeat itself.” And no better proof of this belief is comparing the 1918 flu pandemic to the current coronavirus pandemic.

The 1918 pandemic infected 500 million people worldwide, with 50 million deaths. In the U.S., 675,000 people died, according to UCLA.

So far during the coronavirus pandemic, as of mid-November, more than 11.7 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S. with 253,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. Worldwide, there are more 57.2 million cases confirmed with 1.3 million deaths.

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Like what we have been experiencing for the past 11 months, those who survived the influenza pandemic more than a century ago shared what they needed to do to be able to come out on the other side of the world-wide illness.

Instead of online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, they had only letters and diaries to document what was going on.

Those writings, along with photographs from the era, were digitized earlier this year by a curator at UCLA, the university said.

Russell Johnson is the curator of history and special collections for the sciences at the UCLA library.

However, he didn’t start his career as a librarian. He had planned to work in behavioral neuroscience, but instead studied the history of the specialty, according to an interview with Atlas Obscura.

Johnson said he created the collection “from scratch,” buying many items through eBay and booksellers.

It’s been his passion over the past eight years, even before the coronavirus pandemic started, The Los Angeles Times reported.

One letter between a schoolteacher living in Indianapolis and her fiance who was deployed to the Army in late 1918, could have been written today.

Hildreth Heiney wrote everyone was wearing masks.

“Yes, I wore one, and so did everybody else. There were all kinds — large and small — thick and thin, some embroidered and one cat-stitched around the edge,” Atlas Obscura shared.

Another letter, written by Alton Miller who was in the Army, told his family,

“Don’t get frightened but I have had the influenza for four days but I have not let the authorities know about it ... Our hospitals are overcrowded here and I think in another week the whole camp will be quarantined. The treatment you get in the hospitals is absolutely rotten, they say. It is so crowded that you don’t get enough to eat and it is very dirty and most of the nurses and attendants have got it, too ... Once you get in you have a hard job getting out.”

Miller told his sister on Oct. 5 that there were 10,000 cases at Fort Dix. He said he was happy not to go to the hospital, but days later, the family got a letter from the chaplain saying that he had been admitted. On Oct. 11, the family got a telegram that Miller had died at the base hospital.

The letters also show that similar moves were taken to help stop the spread of illness, with schools, businesses and entertainment being shut down.

“I rushed down to church yesterday morning only to find that there were no services, the church having been closed by the Board of Health on account of the influenza. All the movies, pool halls and other public gathering places have been closed. The epidemic seems quite general, although I don’t think it is as general or as bad as it is cast. Its [sic] been necessary to turn several buildings into hospitals though, to hold the sick people,” John O’Hora wrote his sister in 1918, according to UCLA.

Historians say we should follow the lead of those who lived through pandemics before — to write out what is happening.

Author Nancy Bristow earlier this year said to be specific, whether it’s how you are feeling or what you are doing. Talk about your relationships and how you are getting through this period of history, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Bristow also compiled correspondence in her book, “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.”

Also, make sure you write in something that will last. If you are using an electronic platform, print a hard copy. Don’t depend on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms.

Also, read what was written in 1918, and use that as an inspiration.

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