How We Tried To Contain Major Pandemics Throughout Recorded History
A nurse checking on a patient at the Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward during the influenza pandemic, Washington, D.C., circa 1918. (Harris & Ewing/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
In the last month or so, health officials have touted self-isolation as the key to flattening the curve and stopping the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the government's warnings, anyone who has come in contact with the virus or recently traveled should be quarantined for at least two weeks, while everyone else should avoid close contact with anyone else. These measures are harsh and inconvenient, but history shows us they are nothing new. Let's look at the efforts to contain some of history's most deadly pandemics.
The Black Death killed as much as half the European population. (historytoday.com)
The Black Death
Records of the time tell us that a ship full of people sick with the bubonic plague arrived in Southampton, England in October 1348. Within a month, the disease had spread to London, and by December, Londoners were dropping dead at a rate of about 200 per day. The Black Death was just getting started: In the end, between one-third and one-half of the population of Europe was dead from the highly infectious disease.
King Edward ordered people to shelter in place. (history.com)
The King's Quarantine
England's King Edward III took a break from fighting the Hundred Years' War to implement new mandates for dealing with the bubonic plague. At this time in history, the causes of most diseases were unknown, but it was clear that the Plague was spreading from person to person. In early January 1349, Edward closed Parliament and ordered his officials to leave the city for the relative safety of their country homes. London went into lockdown, businesses closed, the police refused to arrest criminals, and social events were canceled.
The king ordered the mass graves to be moved outside London to prevent the spread of the Plague. (plagueclark.weebly.com)
Cleaning The Bad Air
One of the prevailing theories of the day was that sickness was caused by foul-smelling air. In the early days of the Black Death, London officials buried the dead in a mass pit near the center of town, but Edward worried that the stench from the rotting corpses would sicken others, so he ordered workers to bury the dead outside the city. He also ordered his workers to thoroughly clean the streets of London, which ran with human excrement and garbage. Maybe that should have been addressed earlier.
Since the Plague was spread by merchant ships, many cities closed their ports. (theravenreport.com)
Closing The Ports
Other parts of Europe attempted to halt the spread of the Plague by closing the ports and borders. In Venice, people arriving on ships were forced to dock on an outlying island, where they were quarantined for a full month before they could enter the city.
Only asymptomatic people could leave their homes. (historyextra.com)
Across Europe, local officials ordered sick people to quarantine in their homes. A blue cross was placed on the door of homes in which a Plague victim lived, and all family members who were infected had to remain closed up in the home for one month after the death of a Plague victim. If the family was lucky enough to have a member or two that remained healthy, they were charged with caring for the ill, bringing home food and supplies and tending the family farm. In fact, many healthy family members moved into barns and sheds to stay away from the sickness.
The Spanish flu pandemic hit in 1918. (thedailystar.com)
Fast Forward To 1918
From 1918 to 1919, the so-called Spanish Flu killed around 675,000 Americans and between 20 and 50 million people globally. The response to the sickness varied from place to place, but in the end, steps were in place to slow the spread of the virus, potentially saving lives.
Many cities went into total shutdown during the Spanish Flu pandemic. (evanstonnow.com)
Even before the Spanish Flu struck St. Louis, Missouri, health officials had begun a campaign to inform residents about the dangers of crowds. Newspaper editorials urged people to avoid large gatherings of people, and when the city saw its first Spanish Flu patients, the mayor ordered the closure of all schools, restaurants, pool halls, and movie theaters. Experts who have studied St. Louis's response to the pandemic have concluded that these measures saved St. Louis from the overwhelming of the local healthcare system that so many other cities suffered.
The thin gauze mask may not have offered as much protection as previously thought. (untappedcities.com)
To Mask Or Not To Mask
The jury is still out on the benefits of protective masks for the general public, but some cities enforced a strict mask policy to contain the spread of the Spanish Flu. In San Francisco, people were fined for going out in public without a mask, but the thin gauze masks that city officials claimed that the masks were 99% effective against the disease were much less useful than previously thought. The fact that San Francisco banned all social gatherings, closed businesses, and shuttered schools contributed more to slowing the spread than the thin masks.
Please, just wash your hands. (cdc.gov)
What About Hand Washing?
Personal hygiene was questionable at best during the Middle Ages, when the Black Death pandemics occurred. Even in 1918, diligent hand washing was not commonplace, but today, we know that washing your hands is the best line of defense against the spread of disease. When used with other measures, like social distancing and self-quarantining, it can go a long way to help flatten the curve, so lather up, for heaven's sake.