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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Wissler

Then and Now: A Photo Essay of Life in the 1918 Influenza and COVID-19

Lots of content has appeared in recent weeks comparing the current COVID-19 pandemic and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

I thought I would contribute by putting together a short photo essay. A collection of paired photos gleaned from the internet; one from today juxtaposed with one from the past. The photos I have chosen are meant to highlight the similarities and the differences between then and now. These are snapshots of how life has both continued as normal and changed utterly.

Many of the non-pharmaceutical interventions to combat infection are the same today as they were in 1918 such as cancelling large gatherings, self-isolation, and the wearing of face masks. Yet striking differences like how far medical technology has advanced can be seen in every instance.

But I think the most noticeable thing about these photos is while certain differences are glaring, the similarities between people then and people now is striking. Dedication, determination, and compassion are evident; exposing the diversity of human experience over time under historic circumstances.

A temporary hospital in 1918 for influenza patients and a temporary hospital in Wuhan for COVID-19 patients

Soldiers fighting in World War I were hit particularly hard by the pandemic as they lived and trained in cramped quarters. Temporary hospitals like in image 1 were set up to treat the influx of patients with influenza, this one in State Gym. Sheets placed between the beds were found to decrease the spread of the disease around the camps and hospitals. A similar temporary hospital is set up in a former exposition center in Wuhan, China. In lieu of sheets, having at least 6 feet of distance between infected persons can help stop the spread of COVID-19.


As of April 3 over 1000 New York City police officers have fallen sick, many of them testing positive for COVID-19. In these times law enforcement is needed to help enforce public health initiatives such as breaking up large gatherings. Many cities in 1918 fined or even arrested people for not wearing masks, coughing, sneezing or spitting in public.


Public health initiatives were vital to stopping the spread of influenza in 1918. Laws mandating the wearing of masks in public and outlawing spitting on sidewalks appeared in many US cities. The CDC released guidelines on how to reduce the spread of airborne respiratory diseases like COVID-19. Both advocate covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying home if you get sick, and avoiding contact with sick people. Thankfully the risk of the common drinking cup is less of a problem these days.


In 1918 churches, theatres, and schools closed their doors to prevent large gatherings of people that might facilitate the spread of influenza. Last month (March 2020) all kinds of businesses throughout the United States – including theatres – shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19.


Hospitals and hospital staff are the front lines in a pandemic such as 1918 Influenza and COVID-19. In many places hospitals in 1918 were overwhelmed by the number of influenza cases. Many had to turn patients away due to shortages of beds, medical supplies and nurses. Today hospitals face similar circumstances: dire shortages ventilators, face masks, and other personal protective equipment needed to keep staff and patients safe.


Most of us today are overwhelmed by the sheer number of news stories on the current pandemic - all of which seem to be negative. Though news sources in 1918 were decidedly more analog, consumers were still deluged by headlines about death, bans, and closures.


During a pandemic, non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social-distancing and self-isolating are necessary for combating the spread of disease. People who perform essential services such as delivering mail, however, don’t have the luxury of staying home. A recent scientific study found that he COVID-19 virus can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours.


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