Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Covid and DigMichNews

By Ed Bradley

During this pandemic, time spent finding social media items in CMU’s Digital Michigan Newspapers portal has taken an interesting turn.

In searching the Clarke Historical Library-administered portal – and Michigan newspapers digitized by the Clarke for the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” site -- for potential entries for the DigMichNewspapers Twitter site, I came to wonder about the similarities in coverage of Covid-19 and the last great world health crisis: the “Spanish flu” outbreak of 1918-19.

Big-city papers of that time gave substantial coverage (albeit much less on the front page in comparison with 2020) to the pandemic, but much less attention was paid by the kinds of small-town dailies and weeklies found in the DigMich collection. Their focus was on local, not national, news, and the flu hit cities harder. But the town papers did not ignore the crisis. As with Covid-19, their concern was expressed in multiple attitudes: warning, suspicion, exploitation.

For example, an October 11, 1918, story in the OxfordLeader was meant to provide help on how not to become infected, with language not unlike that of 2020. The syndicated “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu” article quoted U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue with a strong sense of concern – and a call for social distancing without using the term that would be ubiquitous a century hence.

“It is now believed that influenza is always spread from person to person, the germs being carried with the air along with the very small droplets … expelled by coughing or sneezing, forceful talking, and the like by one who already has the germs of the disease,” Blue said. “… [E]very person who becomes sick … should go home at once and go to bed. … It is highly desirable that no one be allowed to sleep in the same room as the patient.

“When [outdoor] crowding is unavoidable … care should be taken to keep the face so turned as not to exhale directly the air breathed out by another person.”

Indeed, some folks did wear masks in 1918, but the Great War was still foremost in the public mind. A public-service message that accompanied the above Leader article read “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases … As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells,” a reference to the deadly chemical weapons used overseas.

As there have been conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus, so were there regarding the 1918 flu. The October 2 issue of the BeldingBanner-News blared that the flu “May Be Spread by German Spies.” This was a local story of sorts, for the source of the story was a Banner-News editor, Hubert Engemann, a sailor who had returned to Michigan after a stay in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, which had been overrun by the flu.

 “There was some talk,” read the story, “that the disease was spread by German agents or spies, but [Engemann] was rather inclined to discredit this himself, although he said that there was nothing that the enemy would not stoop to do.”

As the pandemic lingered into 1919, opportunities came for commercial entities to take advantage. A page of the January 16 Leelanau Enterprise included competing ads for anti-flu medicine: the stomach acid remedy Eatonic promised to clean “Toxic Poisons Out of the Digestive Tract,” and the touting of Hill’s Bromide Cascara Quinine was even more direct: “Don’t wait until your cold develops Spanish Influenza or pneumonia. Kill it quick.”

By the way, the 1918-19 sickness was generally referred to in print as “the Spanish ‘flu,’” not “the ‘Spanish’ flu” or “the ‘Spanish flu.’” The small difference in punctuation signaled doubt on whether the malady was influenza while affirming it was Spanish in origin. Actually, there is no clear evidence of the latter, but Spain was likely saddled with the blame because it was hit hard early by the flu – and, as a World War I-neutral nation without imposed censorship, did not curtail reporting of its troubles.

Regarding some of the phrases we’ve been hearing as we battle Covid-19, a search of the Clarke collection reminds us of the fluidity of linguistics. A 1994 Oxford Leader advertisement advised us to “Be Safe at Home!” – only this safety came in the purchase of a home security system. And a 1964 ad in the same weekly informed us we would save money by staying home to shop -- but this “Shop at Home” strategy was in buying from local merchants and not from those out of town.