Influenza 1918 (Transcript)

Kerry Wynn: Hi, I’m Kerry Wynn, and I teach History at Washburn University.  It is mid-April, 2020, and we’re several weeks into a stay-at-home order here in Topeka, Kansas, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Since I’m a historian, I wanted to learn more about previous epidemics in Kansas, so I turned to Brooke Manny.  Brooke earned her Bachelor of Arts in History at Washburn last year, and her senior research project focused on the flu pandemic of 1918 in Kansas.  Brooke is currently studying Leadership Education and working at the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she shared her knowledge of the past and some observations about what we can learn from the pandemic of 1918. In the conversation that follows, we’ll talk about social bans and closing orders, which were policies from the early 20th century that were much like what we have in place today.  In October of 1918, the state of Kansas enacted orders closing many businesses, cancelling public events, and enforcing what today we call social distancing.  Many cities enacted their own more restrictive bans, which often extended beyond the month-long statewide order. Brooke said that when she began her research on the flu, she noticed that one aspect had not been kept alive in public memory or studied by historians until relatively recently.  Here she is…

Brooke Manny: There was a lot of the social context of the flu that was forgotten for 20 or 30 years because people were not, they’re still trying to find a way to heal from the war and to get past that, and for them, that was a greater burden. And so, historians–that’s what they were really interested in. You saw a lot more information of people looking at mortality rates because of the flu or because of other medical diseases going around at the time, but really that social understanding of how did this impact us from not being able to see each other for a year of so many deaths happening, that people just forgot about it, and it wasn’t until social historians were able to come about in the late 60s or 70s, and started to do something to look into this flu.

Kerry Wynn: I asked Brooke why she was interested in studying Kansas in order to understand the social factors of the flu.

Brooke Manny: Yes. So, Kansas just seemed a little obvious for me because that’s what I was living at the time going to Washburn, but there was just a lot of rural population there. And so understanding how the rural versus urban area were able to understand and interact because of the epidemic was really important. Because there are closing orders that were happening throughout the entire country, each city was able to pick some sort of social ban similar to what you see today with businesses closing if they’re not essential–and so Kansas had to make that policy for themselves. And the more that I researched rural Kansas, they had this very blanket policy; it was focused toward urban areas, and not rural areas. And that was kind of concerning to me because you don’t see this history of what happened to those rural communities. Because when Kansas decided to lift their closing order and people were able to go out to theaters or to churches again, that’s when the rural areas were being hit really hard. And areas like Garden City, they’re seeing more deaths than they ever had before. But now the closing order’s done, and so you see more people traveling and it just was really difficult for Kansas to then heal because Kansas was one of the later states to get the flu and for the spread to become really big in the state. But then they are also one of the last ones to get rid of it because its closing order was lifted there.

Kerry Wynn: Not only did were rural areas affected at the end of the closing orders, as Brooke’s research revealed, there were pandemic-related concerns unique to rural areas throughout the fall of 1918…

Brooke Manny: I would say there’s two really significant pieces. The first was that line between what is a central business and what isn’t, because you see farmers writing into the governor asking, “Is my business essential? I have this livestock or this agricultural sale that I really need to do” and the governor would write back and say, “Nope, not essential.” And so then farmers were fighting for the right to say, “You know what?  I am essential because if I can’t sell my animals to go on to be sold for meat and communities, then communities aren’t going to be fed. They’re going to be suffering, with not as many people being able to get all those resources they need to stay healthy,” and so farmers really had to fight for that right. But also, with World War I going on during the time there are a lot of doctors that weren’t in rural communities anymore. Not that there were many to begin with. And so while the doctors might be overseas or at Camp Funston, people in those communities in the rural areas, they weren’t able to see physicians. You might have one or two physicians or in some counties–I think they’re up to 10 counties in Kansas–that just didn’t have many doctors during the time. And so really being able to get medical access wasn’t possible. In larger areas like Topeka, they’re making makeshift hospitals, but in rural areas, people are just told that they need to stay home and be self-isolated. That’s not as big of a concern today because we have technology to communicate with others, but in some senses, even today, there’s still rural communities that don’t have broadband access. They don’t have internet. So they’re still seeing the isolation, very similar to how rural communities did see it back in 1918.

Kerry Wynn: That’s really interesting–the comparisons that you’re making between 1918 and today in terms of thinking about where we are now. And you do some work through. So you’ve gone on to do some work in leadership. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now and how this might relate to some of the stuff that you studied about 1918?

Brooke Manny: Yes. So right now I have a graduate assistantship with the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and one of our biggest goals is to help progress rural communities–how can we support rural communities in Nebraska? Now, with school being cancelled and then non-essential businesses not being open, we really have to shift our perspective of how can we help these rural communities, because–the main problem that I work with–we send interns into these rural communities to help build different inclusive leadership development throughout the community, but you can’t do that now in the same way that we would have before. And so, recognizing: What are the issues that we can help? How can we shift to make sure rural communities are still having a focus? Because large areas they still get that voice and they have more resources, but in rural areas, you don’t have that, and that’s still really big today.

Kerry Wynn: At the end of our conversation, Brooke came back to the connection between the present and the past, and what she learned from studying the social aspects of the 1918 flu.

Brooke Manny: Something that I think is really fascinating comparing back to 1918, is that schools were closed as well. And you see Wichita State University, that was transformed to a makeshift hospital. So a lot of the concerns that people are facing with today, it’s not invalid at all, but the United States has gone through this before and seeing this wave come back again, I think is really important because that something historians see–history repeats itself. And so, how do we learn from the past and how we learn from our present as well? Going forward, knowing that when we are able to start healing when you do see the closing order lift. Don’t forget that rural communities they still might be suffering and make sure that you’re still able to take precautions, because other areas might still be in the really big height of suffering.

Kerry Wynn: Current research indicates that we may be living with COVID 19 and social distancing for quite some time, and we should prepare for an extended commitment to public health measures to prevent the worst. After studying outcomes of the 1918 pandemic, Brooke emphasized the importance of both good policy and strong social support.

Brooke Manny: People mess up…a lot. Every different–every city had a different policy of the closing order. A lot of cities didn’t have any closing orders, and you see in places on the west coast that they were encouraging people to go outside, get some fresh air, but we also recognize that there’s a balance of you can’t always do that; and you can’t always enforce what is a good policy. There are areas that were enforcing everybody to use a mask, but again, that’s really hard. If you can’t put that down and make everybody be motivated to encourage it, and so the influenza lasts longer in some areas because people weren’t listening to the closing orders. And I think, again, if you’re going to learn from the past, really do something about it. Now, put it into the present.

Kerry Wynn: Thanks to Brooke Manny for her thoughts on the pandemic of 1918 and how it relates to today.  I’m Kerry Wynn, and thanks for listening. The music for this podcast is “Interception” by Kai Engel, available through a Creative Commons attribution license at Free Music Archive.

Typist wears mask during influenza epidemic
Typist during the 1918 flu pandemic, courtesy National Archives, identifier 165-WW-269B-16.