I remember walking among the graves in Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah on a cool fall day a few years ago and being struck by all the tombstones that shared 1918 as the date of death.
There was a good reason for that.
Yellow Fever swept through the country that year, claiming more than 700 lives in Savannah alone – and more deaths worldwide than World War I.
Nationwide the figure was around 675,000 fatalities — and some reports say the worldwide loss of life could’ve been as much as 30-50 million (21.5 million seems to be the official number). Any of those numbers boggle the mind — just imagine 700 dead in one town alone.
A number of the tombstones in the cemetery had been damaged, vandalized, or simply removed to make room for walking areas and many of them were lined up along the one remaining stone wall at the back of the cemetery. Many of those too carried the 1918 date — young to old, prosperous to pauper — all representations of society were there.
At the time I shook my head, thinking how sad it would have been to have lived through those days, possibly desperately ill yourself, and to witness so many die all around you — your family, friends, neighbors — and then be left to mourn their sad passing.
It seemed, it still seems, far removed from how we live today. After all, modern medicine has made us relatively fearless in our daily lives — when we’re sick with winter colds or flu we go to the doctor or hospital, get medicated and get well so we can go on about our business.
Even the recent peanut butter scare — as bad as it is — doesn’t compare to something like what happened in 1918.
We do need to understand though, that our society can, and if experts are correct probably will, have such an experience in the near future.
For example, if the so-called “bird flu” or another mutant strain of influenza makes the jump to humans, then 1918 could pale in comparison to what experts think could happen today.
I know, I know, “fear-mongering” is a tiresome thing, we hear it most oppressively these days with the worldwide “economic collapse,” we’re all facing, with the threat of terrorism, with global warming — heck we even get it on the History Channel with ominous-sounding programs like “It Could Happen Tomorrow.”
And yeah, anything could happen.
But if we take a lesson from the pages of history, we should understand that in today’s mobile, highly-populated society, where most of us brush shoulders with a variety of our fellow human beings day in and day out, it’s quite plausible that a “bug” could get quickly and quietly into the general population before we had the time, or the means, to react.
To me that’s even more frightening than the economic collapse, meteors that may come crashing through the atmosphere, or even the elevated threat of a terrorist bomb.
The dictionary defines “pandemic” as an epidemic that spreads through human populations over a large region.
There have only been some 200 confirmed human deaths from the much-touted avian flu so far (none in the U.S.), and most of those have been in small, isolated clusters of individuals. But as this virus changes and mutates, so could the numbers. And it’s not just a flu bug that could cause widespread disease, tuberculosis is just one other example of a deadly disease that’s on the rise again, with some new and antibiotic resistant strains emerging.
If/when one of these diseases breaks out, how will we deal with it? Would panic reign? Would we ignore it until people were dropping like flies? Or would we heed government health warnings, quarantine ourselves, and wait it out? I’m sure there will be some of all of that going on.
Browsing around on the Internet, I found a government website that told a little of how Georgia dealt with the pandemic of 1918:
“The Atlanta City Council declared all public gathering places closed for two months as a precautionary measure. Schools, libraries, churches, and theaters also closed. Streetcar conductors were directed to keep all windows open — except in rain. In an attempt to stop the epidemic before it reached Athens, the University of Georgia suspended classes. In Augusta, where influenza was rampant, the city suffered from a shortage of nurses. The situation became so acute that nursing students were put in charge of some shifts at the local hospital. An emergency hospital was also constructed on a local fairground, and school teachers were enlisted to act as nurses, cooks and hospital clerks.”
And in the town of Quitman, people were ordered to “cough into their handkerchiefs” and post “influenza” on their doors if anyone inside was afflicted. Can you imagine if that happened in this day and age? It seems, like the History Channel says, “it could happen tomorrow.” The only difference is that now, if we take advantage of it, we have some time to get ready.
To this end the Madison County Flu Pandemic Planning Committee and the Northeast Health District who have been formulating plans for some time now to handle a pandemic on the local level, will sponsor a pandemic flu training seminar for county pastors and other interested church members on Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. in the meeting room of the Madison County Library. After all, in our small community, churches will play a vital role, on many different levels, in helping get through any such crisis. The federal, or even state government may have few resources to distribute in such a widespread crisis, so it’ll be up to us as a community to get ourselves through it.
Margie Richards is a reporter and office manager for The Madison County Journal.