‘History repeating:’ WI historians see strong parallels between COVID-19, influenza pandemic of 1918

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MILWAUKEE -- Tragically, history has a tendency to repeat itself, and historians say the 1918 influenza pandemic has strong parallels to the coronavirus pandemic.

In 1918, the world was at war, but another war was being waged regardless of alliance. The influenza pandemic would ultimately claim more than 20 million lives, including thousands of Wisconsinites, with more residents killed than in World War I, Korea and Vietnam, combined.

If four years of trench warfare wasn't enough, a deadly influenza outbreak in Kansas in March 1918 would quickly spread, reaching Wisconsin by fall. The state's robust public health system moved quickly -- with schools, theaters and public events shut down.

1918 influenza pandemic

"So they had a public health infrastructure to help communicate and then quarantine -- which was the term used back then for social distancing," said Christian Overland, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Some of the same rules were in place -- like covering your face, washing your hands and staying away from crowds. More than 100,000 Wisconsinites were infected and 8,000-plus killed.

1918 influenza pandemic

1918 influenza pandemic

1918 influenza pandemic"So you think about those lessons of history, they're repeating themselves," said Overland.

But Overland said without the efforts of health officials and the public heeding officials' warnings, it could've been far worse.

"I think that's what's important about history," said Overland. "You can learn from the mistakes, as well as the victories, and by putting them together, you can use history to inspire people to build a better future now, and for future generations," said Overland.

The Wisconsin Historical Society, commissioning 12 Wisconsin artists, has released posters hearkening back to the messages of a century ago -- requesting photos, stories and artifacts from today as they draw parallels between us and those living through times of uncertainty at home and abroad more than 100 years ago.

"We're also collecting things to match our collections of the past, too, to be able to tell the story," said Overland.

1918 influenza pandemic

Like today, there were great economic hardships and fallout from the influenza pandemic, and a number of people journaled about their daily lives, something the Wisconsin Historical Society has asked people to do now, as well.

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