What Happened to U.S. Cities That Practiced–and Didn’t Practice–Social Distancing During 1918’s “Spanish Flu”

Amer­i­cans have long been accused of grow­ing social­ly dis­tant, bowl­ing alone, as Robert Put­nam wrote in 2000, or worse becom­ing rad­i­cal­ized as “lone wolves” and iso­lat­ed trolls. But we are see­ing how much we depend on each oth­er as social dis­tanc­ing becomes the painful nor­mal. Not quite quar­an­tine, social dis­tanc­ing involves a semi-vol­un­tary restric­tion of our move­ments. For many peo­ple, this is, as they say, a big ask. But no mat­ter what cer­tain world lead­ers tell us, if at all pos­si­ble, we should stay home, and stay a safe dis­tance away from peo­ple who don’t live with us.

Peo­ple in the U.S. have done this before, of course, just a lit­tle over a hun­dred years ago dur­ing the influen­za epi­dem­ic called the “Span­ish Flu,” though the buzzy term “social dis­tanc­ing” wasn’t used then. As the short VOA News video above explains, dur­ing the spread of the dis­ease, city offi­cials in St. Louis did what cities all over the coun­try are doing now: shut down schools, play­grounds, libraries, church­es, pub­lic offices, and parks and banned gath­er­ings of over 20 peo­ple. Philadel­phia, on the oth­er hand, refused to do the same. The city “allowed a major World War I sup­port parade to take place that attract­ed 20,000 peo­ple.”

The refusal to shut down large gath­er­ings cost thou­sands of lives. “Three days lat­er, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hos­pi­tals was filled with sick and dying Span­ish flu patients.” COVID-19 may be a far milder ill­ness in chil­dren and most healthy peo­ple, but this is exact­ly what makes it so insid­i­ous. One per­son can infect dozens before show­ing any symp­toms, if ever. Dur­ing the “Span­ish” flu pan­dem­ic, “the best approach­es were lay­ered,” writes Ger­man Lopez at Vox. “It wasn’t enough to just tell peo­ple to stay home, because they might feel the need to go to school or work, or they could just ignore guid­ance and go to events, bars, church or oth­er big gath­er­ings any­way.”

The com­par­i­son between St. Louis and Philadel­phia stress­es the need for city offi­cials to inter­vene in order for social dis­tanc­ing strate­gies to work. How­ev­er we might feel in ordi­nary cir­cum­stances about gov­ern­ments ban­ning pub­lic gath­er­ings, the glob­al spread of a dead­ly virus seems to war­rant a coor­di­nat­ed pub­lic response that best con­tains the spread. “In prac­ti­cal terms,” Lopez points out, “this meant advis­ing against or pro­hibit­ing just about every aspect of pub­lic life, from schools to restau­rants to enter­tain­ment venues (with some excep­tions for gro­cery stores and drug­stores).”

Lopez cites sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies of the 1918 influen­za out­break as evi­dence of the effec­tive­ness of social dis­tanc­ing. For even more data on our cur­rent pan­dem­ic, see Tomas Pueyo’s exten­sive Medi­um essay com­pil­ing data and sta­tis­tics on COVID-19’s spread and pre­ven­tion. And if you’re still hav­ing a lit­tle trou­ble fig­ur­ing out what exact­ly “social dis­tanc­ing” involves, see this excel­lent guide from Asaf Bit­ton, physi­cian, pub­lic health researcher, and direc­tor of the Ari­adne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pi­tal and the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Pub­lic Health.

As Bit­ton tells Isaac Chotin­er in a recent New York­er inter­view, “social dis­tanc­ing isn’t some exter­nal con­cept that applies only to work and school. Social dis­tanc­ing is real­ly extreme. It is a con­cept that dis­con­nects us phys­i­cal­ly from each oth­er. It pro­found­ly reori­ents our dai­ly life habits. And it is very hard.” No mat­ter how polar­ized we become, or how glued to our var­i­ous screens, we are “social crea­tures” who need con­nec­tion and com­mu­ni­ty. When we make the tran­si­tion out of life at a dis­tance, maybe the mem­o­ry of that need will help us over­come some of our pre-virus social alien­ation.

Relat­ed Con­tent:   

Free Cours­es on the Coro­n­avirus: What You Need to Know About the Emerg­ing Pan­dem­ic

Watch “Coro­n­avirus Out­break: What You Need to Know,” and the 24-Lec­ture Course “An Intro­duc­tion to Infec­tious Dis­eases,” Both Free from The Great Cours­es

How to Pro­tect Your­self Against COVID-19/­Coro­n­avirus

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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