Key Differences Between Policing the COVID-19 & 1918 Flu Pandemics

Considering how primitive medicine was in 1918, as well as the fact that sophisticated police equipment was still a distant dream, it is easy to wonder how order was maintained during such a chaotic time...

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically affected almost every single aspect of contemporary life and threatens to permanently alter how humans interact with each other on a daily basis. We have recently witnessed several grim scenes that feel like they’ve been taken straight from a sci-fi movie; such as Disneyland workers greeting visitors with handheld smiles, since their actual ones were covered by facemasks. 

As apocalyptic as our current reality might feel, we should keep in mind that this is far from being the first time that we have faced a health crisis of this magnitude. In fact, we were in a very similar position a century ago, when the Spanish flu pandemic, which began in 1918 and claimed roughly 50 million lives worldwide, was in its final stages. Considering how primitive medicine still was back then, as well as the fact that sophisticated police equipment was still a distant dream, it is easy to wonder how order was maintained during such a chaotic time.

A disciplined society was the best ally

Comparing the 1918 flu pandemic to the current pandemic has been inevitable for analysts from the very beginning. However, it is evident how most of the attention has been given to health officials and the role they played in fighting the disease. Doctors were indeed key players on the frontline, but they were not alone; the police and other public safety institutions also played a pivotal role, just like they do now.

In times of public health crises, police officers are tasked with making sure that the restrictions imposed by a government are observed by society, as well as maintaining public order. And just like nowadays, people in 1918 also had to endure lengthy quarantines, travel restrictions, and limits on social gatherings. Although, the high fatality rate of the Spanish flu could make us think that being a policeman back in the day was a far more dangerous job, and it was. But enforcing the restrictions was remarkably easier.

First of all, people were not used to questioning authority, so any instruction given by any official was taken with the utmost seriousness. Secondly, given the rather primitive state of medicine at that time, people were genuinely afraid of diseases; especially those that could be easily transmitted. Moreover, living in constant hardship made communities more accustomed to sacrifice, so understanding the need of confining oneself at home was not as challenging as it is for millions nowadays; even without video games and Netflix!

Essentially, people were more disciplined in 1918, and such value was given to maintaining public order that ordinary citizens bravely rushed to fill the empty spots left by doctors, nurses, and police officers who perished; something almost unthinkable today. However, such a ‘utopian’ response also has its silent sideL if people did not question the efforts made by the government, it was mainly because they simply did not dare to do so.

Nurses Making Facemasks

This does not mean that there were not any sanctions for those who did violate the decrees imposed by the authorities; hefty fines were given to those who did not wear facemasks in public, and visitors who did not have proper documentation were barred from entering towns and cities. Funerals were also limited to no more than 15 minutes,and stores were also ordered to only allow up to a certain number of customers at any given time.

So what has changed?

Most containment measures that we are currently witnessing have been deemed draconian or simply too harsh by many people, who often voice their discontent in ways that were completely unimaginable for those who went through the Spanish flu pandemic. According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult in late March, out of the 2,000 respondents, nearly 80% supported the implementation of a nationwide quarantine, whereas just 19% opposed it. 

These numbers might not seem alarming at first glance, but it only takes checking the news of the last two to three months to see how serious and vocal that 19% became.

Moreover, supporting the quarantine does not necessarily mean that the respondent will fully observe it. The large crowds seen at American beaches during spring break, as well as incidents such as the widespread fear of American tourists in Ireland, (who were found to rarely abide by the government’s orders to self-isolate for 14 days upon their arrival), are clear indicators that whilst the quarantine is indeed supported by the majority of Americans, those who wholeheartedly commit to it are fewer in number.

This is why policing the Covid-19 pandemic represents a huge challenge for contemporary law enforcement officers. Not only do they have to worry about their families’ safety as well as their own, but they are also dealing with a society that has started to value its personal liberty before public guidelines, and that sometimes sees no major harm in ignoring law enforcement’s authority.

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