1. Introduction to 1918 influenza pandemic
For a better understanding the impact of influenza on everyday life it is very important to understand the unique characteristics of the 1918 pandemic and at the same time the way people lived back then. During the early twentieth century, infectious diseases, communicable from person to person, were significantly widespread all around the Globe. But, only the Black Death, which occurred in the fourteenth century, killed more people than the influenza pandemic of 1918. One fifth of the world's population was infected by the H1N1 virus and with estimated 50 million deaths (Morens et al.). The pandemic was known as Spanish flu. Interestingly, Spain was not the first country affected by the virus, but one of the few attacked that was not in War, thus with a free press.
The 1918 influenza was different from non-pandemic influenza. One unique feature was a high mortality rate, three to five times higher, on average than during a nonpandemic year. An intriguing characteristic was that most of the deaths occurred in young age groups. The death outcome was not actually attributed to the virus action, but to the body’s immunological reaction to the virus. Younger persons with strongest immune systems were more likely to develop a serious disease and die than individuals with weaker immune systems (Crosby 32).
1.2 Influenza pandemic in the United States of America
Influenza struck the United States in the fall of 1918, and at first appeared in military populations before hitting civilian communities. There are several estimations of the number of victims taken by the pandemic in 1918, ranging from 550,000 to 700,000 people. A very important context of the way the pandemic was handled was the First World War. Many lives were already lost, and the United States were struggling in a horrifying war for years. Officials rarely were telling the truth if the truth was going to hurt the nation morale. Knowing that what they were told was not entirely true, people were terrified because they did not know how to act and what to expect during the pandemic. On one side there were the public health officials saying that Spanish influenza was just a cold while, on the other hand, there were young people dying in almost every house. The impact of 1918 influenza pandemic was almost catastrophic. Besides the economic impact of such plague, there were also the sociological and psychological changes that hugely affected everyday life of people.
2. Altered everyday life in the State of Washington during the pandemic
The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of intense social contact. Skating rinks, saloons, dance halls and amusement parks were very popular back then. However, the influenza pandemic changed the way people acted tremendously. It is really incredible that in such a short period, one disease could alter the way people lived and how they felt more than the First World War did in years. The fear of influenza and dying was the guiding principle of every action and incorporated in all daily activities.
2.1 Impact of pandemic on social behavior
Unfortunately, when the public officials realized that they had to do something to constrain the infection, influenza was already widespread. Most communities reacted by introducing social distancing measures. During the pandemic's zenith, many cities shut down public services, such as public transportation and schools. Moreover, all public gatherings were prohibited in many cities. Theaters, amusement parks and dance hall were abruptly shut down. Even gatherings for religious purposes were forbidden in churches. People start to be afraid of leaving their houses or talk to each other. Wearing of masks was mandatory across the Washington State. However, people wearing masks had a false feeling of safety as the mask did not prevent the spread of influenza. There was the fear of having contact with other people, especially soldiers. People started to be paranoid of getting sick, and there were even some requests for soldiers to be barred from entering the cities. People did not want to have any contact to sick family members either; thus they were sent away from home. There was no more space in hospitals for all patients, so in Seattle, the old City Hall, and some of the dormitories at the University of Washington were transformed to emergency hospitals. There were no people walking on the streets, it seemed almost like cities were abandoned. Such fear was justifiable. Regardless all the measures taken, just in the city of Seattle, 1600 persons died of influenza in just six months.
2.2 Impact of pandemic on family structure
Maybe the most noticeable impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic was on the family structure. Most of the households had members with influenza, and the terrifying thing was that the death occurred mostly in previously healthy young adults.
Though children were less susceptible to infection, many were affected because their parents died. The consequence of such situation was that there were too many orphans in 1918. Some states even organized orphan trains for adoption stops. Local courts had different ways of handle the situation (Navarro 12). Some courts closed, while some held outdoor sessions. Seattle witnessed a drastic drop in the number of marriage license application, which one could think is a logic consequence of minimized court work. However, at the same time the number of divorce increased suggesting that the pandemic was affecting the normal family equilibrium. Children and young people were sent away from their homes or because they were sick or need to be isolated from sick members of the household. This overwhelming situation was just too much to handle for many families. Some families broke apart because of the illness itself which caused many deaths. Nevertheless, many families were ruined because of the way the pandemic was handled and from the intense misery, fear, pain and stress.
The 1918 influenza pandemic is one of the greatest catastrophes that affected mankind. However, we learned something from the past and are now more ready to react in case we have to (Morens et al.).
Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
Morens, David M., et al. "The 1918 influenza pandemic: lessons for 2009 and the future." Crit Care Med 38.4 (2010): e10-20. Web. 27 Sep. 2011. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3180813/pdf/nihms320487.pdf>
Navarro, Julian A. "Influenza in 1918: An Epidemic in Images." Public Health Rep 125.3 (2010): 9–14. Print.