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Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and the 1918 Influenza

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The current Covid-19 epidemic has drawn comparisons to the 1918 influenza epidemic, often referred to as the Spanish flu or H1N1 virus. The influenza flu was devastating with an estimated 500 million people — one-third of the world’s population — infected and 50 million died; in the U.S., about 675,000 deaths occurred and in New York City an estimated 30,000 people died, almost certainly an underestimate. However, the influenza epidemic was but one development that marked a very peculiar moment in the nation’s history

The 1918 influenza epidemic was fostered by World War I and framed by the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. It was preceded by a polio epidemic. In addition, it was made worse with the imposition of a moralistic campaign that culminated in the adoption of the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition and 20th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

The U.S. formally entered the war on April 6, 1917. Unfortunately, as a scholar notes, “The war fostered influenza in the crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe.” She adds, “the virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic, and at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel.”

The influenza epidemic went through three distinct waves during a 12-month period from 1918 and 1919. However, in December 1915, the U.S. witnessed an increase in the death rates due to a major respiratory disease that set the stage for the epidemic. The three waves were: a mild first wave (May–August 1918), a severe second wave (September–November 1918) and a moderate third wave (December 1918 to mid-1919).

A number of critical differences distinguish the current coronavirus from the influenza virus of a century ago. First, nearly half of the 1918 Spanish flu deaths were of young adults 20–40 years of age – as distinct from the elderly who are the most likely victims today. Second, young people age 5 to 14 years of age accounted for a disproportionate number of influenzas cases but had a much lower death rate than other age groups.

Just prior to the outbreak of the influenza epidemic, the nation was besieged by a polio epidemic. In 1916, polio (aka poliomyelitis) struck, and, in New York City, more than 27,000 cases were reported, with 6,000 people dying. This wave of the polio epidemic was symbolized by Franklin D. Roosevelt catching the virus in 1921 and the illness became known as “the Crippler.” A major polio outbreak occurred in the earely-50s and widespread vaccinations became available in 1955.

In June 1917, as the U.S. readied for war, Congress passed the Espionage Act that gave postal officials the authority to ban newspapers and magazines from the mails and threatened individuals convicted of obstructing the draft with $10,000 fines and 20 years in jail. In May 1918, Congress amended the Espionage Act with the Sedition Act that prohibited any form of speech or expressed opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds. It made it a federal offense to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the Constitution, the government, the American uniform or the flag.

The government prosecuted over 2,100 people under these acts. Eugene V. Debs, who urged socialists to resist militarism, went to prison for nearly three years. The International Workers of the World (IWW) never recovered from government attacks during the war. In September 1917, the Justice Department staged massive raids on IWW officers, arresting 169 of its leaders. The administration’s purpose was, as one attorney put it, “very largely to put the IWW out of business.”

The U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue imposed a gag order on media reports about the influenza epidemic. He asserted, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” The New York City public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza caused the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

In November 1918, Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s Wartime Prohibition Act took effect that forbid brewers from making beverages with more than 2.75 percent alcohol by volume. The Selective Service Act forbade the sale of liquor to men in uniform and dry zones were established around military camps. On November 11, 1918, the allies declared an end to WW-I and, two months later, on January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified. Prohibition criminalized the making, importation, distribution and sale of alcohol – but not the drinking of booze. On January 17, 1920, it went into effect with the adoption of the Volstead Act. It was a major victory for the purity campaign that remained in force until the adoption of the 21st Amendment in 1933 ending Prohibition.

On April 3, 1919, Pres. Wilson was in Paris to discuss the Treaty of Versailles and began to cough and developed a high fever, forcing him to stay in bed. He had contracted what had become known as the Spanish Flu and never fully recovered.

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At the time of the 1918 influenza epidemic, Americans lived more “public” lives that we live today. During this period, people went out to socialize and for entertainment. This was before television/cable and the Internet/streaming video; it was the early era of radio – what was known as “the radio telephone” – that had been launched on January 13, 1910 when the voice of Enrico Caruso and other singers of the Metropolitan Opera were broadcast live and listeners used earphones to hear it.

As the war approached, the War Department and U. S. Public Health Service directed the states to provide safeguards against disease to protect the troops. This led to the closing of approximately 125 red-light districts throughout the country under the requirements of “war discipline.” In Arizona, the State Board of Health closed all red-light districts, especially the bordellos or “houses of ill-fame,” and outlawed prostitution within 5 miles of any military camp. This was followed by a nationwide campaign that involved the arrest, forceful medical testing and/or imprisonment of an estimated 30,000 women for allegedly being carriers of venereal disease and, thus, “domestic enemies” accused of undermining the war effort.

In the face of both the influenza and polio epidemics, New York, Chicago and many other cities didn’t impose a quarantine, a decision that was highly political. Compared to actions today, there were no general lockdowns. By the second phase, most cities closed saloons, theaters, places of public gathering, but there was no general closing. For example, in Los Angeles all motion picture houses, theaters and places of amusement were closed; in Denver, cops stopped arresting prostitutes and vagrants in an effort to keep the disease from infecting other inmates. Nevertheless, fear of the flu was pretty effective in keeping people home and there was tremendous absenteeism from work.

Ironically, this was the period in which the “new women’ entered onto the historical stage contesting Victorian ideals — and raised the ire of religious moralists. She moved into the ever-growing cities, had an education, joined the labor force, had money in her pocket and even gained the vote. Not only was a new woman coming onto the historical stage, but she was an unprecedented sexualized one at that.

Clothing heightened a woman’s physical sense of her body and an erotic expression of self. American middle- and upper-class women had been constrained by corsets and trailing skirts throughout the 19th century, but no longer. Fashion symbolized the new woman and a transformed femininity. The change led to the freeing of the woman’s physical movement, her very step. The removal of stays and the lifting of the hemline in skirts and dresses made this possible. And as the hemline rose, ankles and calves became a theatre of exposed flesh erotically framed by shoes and stockings.

One of those “new women” was May Dix who, according to legend, performed the first “strip” in a hot summer night in 1917 at the Minsky Brothers’ New York theatre on Second Ave. near Houston St. After she finished her cooch dance performance, Dix moved off stage and removed her costume. And, in the words of Morton Minsky, “Between the heat and the applause, May lost her head, went back for a short chorus, and unbuttoned her bodice as she left the stage again.” As the historian Robert Allen noted, the striptease was “burlesque’s last-ditch and ultimately unsuccessful strategy to stay alive.”

The “girl show” was another form of live erotic performance at touring carnivals bringing live entertainment to small-town and rural America during influenza era. At these shows, the performer — the female posture artist — acted out a “living picture” in which she held a revealing pose (often with minimal clothing) for audience inspection. The carney operator might then deploy the artful technique known as the “girls and grift” con, tapping male desire with the suggestive fantasy of the “cooch” dance.

Dance clubs, beaches and amusement parks were venues of public erotic display and encounter as were the fading burlesque shows, Broadway plays and revues, all catering to male fantasy. Broadway performers like May West were busted on “obscenity” charges. The eroticized female was the star visual attraction of the older post-card pornography and early “girly” magazines.

Movie theatres were a special threat, a venue for viewing early porn and much more. They were one of the few acceptable social spaces in which (white) men and women, often unchaperoned strangers, could share an intimate proximity and an exciting visual experience; African Americans were barred from early New York movie houses. Other than the saloon, the dance hall or a church-sanctioned gathering, young men and women (excluding prostitutes) had few public venues in which to socialize let alone flirt, touch or kiss. “The very darkness of the room,” warned the social reformer Jane Addams, “is an added attraction to many young people, for whom the space is filled with the glamour of love making.”

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The U.S. and the world has changed in the century that separates the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the Corvid-19 pandemic of 2020. For all of Pres. Trump’s saber rattling toward China, the U.S. is not engaged in a formally declared war. And for all the efforts to manipulate coronavirus-related data (especially fatality rates), formal censorship is not being imposed. And while the Christian right aggressively moves to end a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, they are not about to impose a constitutional Amendment to enforce their beliefs.

Over the last century, socializing and entertainment during a period of social crisis have profoundly changed. In the face of today’s coronavirus, Americans have been forced to remain in place, with “gentlemen’s” or strip clubs closed and reported incidents of prostitution very low. However, men and women, singles and couples, gay and straight are watching an unprecedented amount of Internet-accessed porn in all its forms.

Since the time of the influenza epidemic of 1918, the production and display of filmed pornography evolved technologically and socially. It has gone from the earliest silent black-and-white movies shown in tiny theatres; to stag films viewed at the local Elk’s clubs; to red-light district porn houses and peep show arcades; to the viewing of homevideos and DVDs sold in XXX shops in down-market parts of town; to today’s streaming services and VR porn.

With the changes in technology has come a fundamental change in the experience or viewing of what was once considered “obscene” materials. While a handful of porn theatres live on (or at least did so until the coronavirus epidemic led to the closing of “unessential” businesses), the viewing of porn has shifted to a private indulgence. As this occurred, mail delivery and retail outlets were superseded by Internet connectivity, thus undercutting state censorship. In this process, what was once public has become private, what was once illegal has become a mainstream business. One can only imagine how people will respond to the next pandemic.