Portrait of Laird Easton sitting on the ground amid fall leaves.
Photo courtesy of Julia Lukash

For the last decade, history professor Laird Easton has taught classes at Chico State researching and analyzing the history of pandemics and catastrophes. In spring 2021, he looks forward to dedicating a class entirely to the history of infectious diseases, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell, and later received his master’s and PhD from Stanford. The former chair of the Department of History, he primarily specializes in late 19th and early 20th century European history—prime periods for using previous pandemics as a lens through which to view the world today.

Is the 1918 influenza pandemic the best comparison to COVID-19? Are other pandemics comparable?

The influenza pandemic of 1918–19, often misleadingly called the Spanish flu, is indeed the best comparison to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. The same type of pathogen, a RNA virus, which can mutate rapidly, causes both. Both are highly contagious respiratory diseases spread by coughing, sneezing, spitting, and touching infected surfaces. In both cases, fatalities are caused by pneumonia and—even more frightening—by acute respiratory distress syndrome, an overreaction of the immune system. Both are worldwide pandemics, sparing no one. The major difference is that the second wave of the influenza pandemic, in the fall 1918, was far more lethal than the coronavirus currently is. During this phase, the flu killed disproportionate numbers of young, healthy adults. As a result, the life expectancy for Americans in fall 1918 was lowered by 12 years. But the first wave of influenza was comparatively mild, mostly killing the old, like this wave of the coronavirus. If COVID-19 returns this fall in a more lethal version, then we will be severely tested.

How did America react to the 1918 influenza pandemic?

There is a standard pattern to how societies react to epidemics and pandemics, whether it is the Black Death of the 14th century, the outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century, or the AIDS epidemic. First comes denial. In 1918, the First World War exacerbated this. President Woodrow Wilson was so intent on getting the American army to Europe to that he never once mentioned the influenza pandemic, even though it killed six times as many Americans as the war did. Most American newspapers and political officials trivialized the initial reports of the flu.

Next comes panic. At the high point of the pandemic, the corpses piled up in the corridors of the morgues, the medical system collapsed, some people forsook all but close family members for fear, and while most medical staff did their duty, some failed to report for work. This stage reminds one of scenes from the Black Death. Crackpot rumors and theories spread: one widespread rumor claimed that there was a connection between the influenza “germs” and the German enemy, and hucksters promoted all kinds of “cures” for the influenza in newspaper ads. America’s social reaction to COVID-19 is similar, as many officials have continued to downplay COVID-19 due to our highly polarized political climate; for instance, claiming that it is not much worse than the annual flu long after the evidence showed otherwise. As in 1918, the premature relaxation of the lockdown has led to a tremendous spike in illness that will test medical facilities and personnel.

How were California and Chico impacted by the 1918 pandemic?

Very much the same as the rest of the country, although the West Coast was not hit as hard. There is one exception, however. According to John Barry, author of the definitive The Great Influenza, San Francisco’s city officials and newspapers did not trivialize the pandemic, and enforced, at least for a while, strict social distancing and the wearing of masks. As a result, the city was spared the worst of the deadliest wave of the flu, although when the third, milder, wave hit in the spring, it suffered disproportionately. In Chico, the public health official had no medical training whatsoever. He resisted taking any measures until citizens started dropping dead in mid-October when he was finally compelled to close the movie houses, dance halls, and pool halls. Not all of these establishments obeyed. At the high point, the two daily newspapers, which had at first made fun of the flu, began to admit the gravity of the situation. The mayor lost his son. The city ran short of nurses and undertakers. Mask-wearing in public became mandatory, although many resisted. Snake oil recipes proliferated. In the end, Chico lost 104 people in a few weeks.

Comparing COVID-19 to the 1918 pandemic, what are the benefits and dangers of both the news media and social media?

The only news media in 1918 were newspapers and magazines, and the only social media, word of mouth. With the exception of San Francisco, most newspapers played, initially, a disgraceful role of playing down the gravity of the crisis. Later, some of them repented and began to do serious reportage. Today, in some ways, we are much better off. The serious media, the ones with a genuine investigative tradition in journalism, newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Economist, and other news outlets such as National Public Radio, have done a superb job of informing the public from the beginning. Medical schools have established very informative websites, preeminently The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Center. Unfortunately, the explosion of social media and opinion blogs has fed the denial of reality, has spread crazy conspiracy theories, and, in general, has reinforced the anti-intellectualism and paranoia that have always characterized certain segments of American politics. This attitude, coupled with the dismal failure of the top political leadership, is largely responsible for our current stature as the world epicenter of the coronavirus.

What did America learn from the 1918 pandemic, and what are the lessons we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The most important lesson learned from 1918 was the need to improve American medicine, and especially to discover more about viruses. The second lesson was the need for honesty in government regarding the dangers of epidemics and for swift public health measures. Alas, the second lesson was gradually forgotten. In 1980, when smallpox was officially eradicated, many believed that many other infectious diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, polio and others, would follow suit. The AIDS pandemic should have been a wake-up call but, in this country at least, it was largely limited to two populations, which were at the time relative pariahs: homosexuals and needle-users. The classic example of this complacency is the Trump administration’s dismantling of the Global Health and Security and Biodefense unit in May 2018, designed to respond to pandemics and attached to the National Security Council. It turns out that smallpox was the exception. Infectious diseases will always be a menace, and we are in an evolutionary footrace with pathogens. As Barry pointed out in the prophetic afterward to his study, the single most important quality we need to confront the future pandemics that will surely come is honest and energetic political leadership.