“Banning mass gatherings and wearing face masks could cut the number of deaths by 50 percent.”
Sound familiar? That’s from 1918 when a flu pandemic hit the world and sent Americans into a panic. It was commonly referred to as the “Spanish flu,” but it didn’t start in Spain. Spain got the bad rap because the country was neutral during the war and, without wartime censorship, newspapers there freely attached the moniker.
The name traveled, however, and Siouxlanders – including the Sioux City Journal -- latched onto it.
Even more common varieties of influenza brought concern that they could be the “Spanish flu,” prompting local officials to react quickly when any sign of it appeared. When five students at Morningside College were taken to the hospital for treatment of “influenza,” the school rented a nine-room house to handle any other, potential cases. (The five were fine; only one had pneumonia.)
City officials shut down public gatherings, theaters closed off rows and hotels and common areas were mindful of things like drinking glasses and “roller” towels.
The bottom line: Siouxland didn’t mess around. Those in authority knew until a vaccine could be found, they’d have to do what they could to keep residents safe. Because this mysterious flu affected young more than old, they were worried it could wipe out a number of soldiers, needed for fighting the war.
By October, more than 5,000 cases were reported in Iowa. Historians say the pandemic lasted a little less than two years and resulted in the deaths of millions worldwide. Physicians tried a number of treatments (leeches and Vicks VapoRub, among them) to quell the tide. But the best medicine turned out to be social distancing and mask wearing.
Those cut the numbers and helped flatten the curve.
Today, we hear similar advice but, determined to mingle, many ignore it. Over this holiday weekend, it’s likely there will be plenty of crowds, even though many large-scale events have been canceled.
Similarly, masks have become this odd political device. “You’re taking away my freedom by making me wear a mask,” we’ve heard. And stores that kindly ask patrons to wear masks while they’re shopping are seen as too controlling.
The “don’t tell me what to do” reaction is nonsense. Largely political, it has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. As history as shown us, a simple change can save lives. No party owns that.
“It may or may not become an epidemic,” Lt. A.J. McLaughlin said at a meeting in Sioux City in 1918, “but there is an old saying about locking the back door after the horse is stolen. It would not seem advisable to wait until the disease obtained an alarming hold in the city before taking action to curb its spread.”
Now as we see numbers starting to decline in Sioux City but spiking elsewhere, we’d be wise to listen to our predecessors. To keep our numbers going down, we’ve got to be vigilant and “lock the back door.”
All it takes is wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. History has told us as much.
Our Opinion editorials represent the consensus view of The Sioux City Journal editorial board. Members of the board include: Bruce Miller, editor; Michael Gors, editorial page editor; Dave Dreeszen; managing editor; Tim Hynds, chief photographer.
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