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What history taught me about COVID

What history taught me about COVID What history taught me about COVID

Looking through the archives of the newspaper I work for has become one of my favorite activities in recent years. Not only are the bound volumes and microfi lm cartridges a treasure trove of story ideas, they are also a fascinating (and often humorous) peek into the past.

Last Friday, thanks to Vicky Calmes, I was able to sneak into the otherwise empty Colby Community Library to use the microfilm reader for a project I had been planning since the COVID-19 outbreak hit Wisconsin earlier this year. (By the way, please don’t harass Vicky in an attempt to get into the library; my foray was a one-time exception that was prearranged so I could still observe social distancing rules).

The results of my research into the local impact of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic resulted in this week’s front page story. For me, it was an eye-opening encounter with a part of the past that, until recently, didn’t get a lot of attention. The flu pandemic at the end of World War I killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide — a staggering statistic that underscores how vulnerable we are as a species to microscopic killers with no allegiance to any country or cause. Viruses don’t take sides in any conflict, but they slaughter far more than even the deadliest armies.

Reading stories from the 1918

also made me realize how much things have changed, while also essentially staying the same. Medical science was obviously much less advanced back then, and so was the world’s ability to communicate quickly from one side of the globe to the other. Still, public health officials knew enough back then to try and keep people separated to stop the spread of the virus, and the local newspaper was still bringing in timely news about the deaths of “our boys” fighting in Europe.

At the same time, human nature is what it is, regardless of time period. Just as today’s Internet spreads false rumors about “miracle cures” for COVID-19, the newspapers of yesteryear happily ran paid promotions from Vick’s claiming that VapoRub was a great treatment for the often-deadly influenza virus. There was also a lot of faith placed in the power of laxatives as a cure-all back then. You may be tempted to laugh at this, but all it takes is a Google search about “colon cleanses” to realize that people still hold onto these ideas.

Overall, though, I came away with a positive outlook. Even with a death toll that was much, much steeper — combined with a world war — the people of this area eventually carried on with their lives. The COVID crisis might seem horrible — and it is — but think about going through it without the luxury of watching “Tiger King” on Netflix.