Archives expose similarities from 1918 Pandemic to COVID-19

written by Brooke Norgaard

The University of Sioux Falls is living through history as it navigates a pandemic and looks upon its past as a guide. Archives at USF reveal similarities as well as differences as the world lives through history and compares Covid-19 to the 1918 pandemic.

Training journalists has been a tradition at USF, and this current USF Vessel Magazine you are reading stems from previous publications at the university which prepared student journalists for a career in writing and covering events. In the early 1900s that training vehicle at Sioux Falls College (the predecessor to USF) was The Sioux Falls Stylus newspaper. Old copies of this publication are housed in the basement of USF’s Mears Library along with many other college archives. A 1918 issue of the Stylus holds a look into the past as it recounts the students’ experiences with the Influenza pandemic. Director of Library Services Annie Sternburg alerted the Vessel staff to these amazing archives and the story it tells about how the 1918 pandemic affected the Sioux Falls College (USF) community. History professor Stephen Jackson also shared the historical context for the 1918 pandemic and its connections to the current pandemic.

The 1918 flu pandemic was different from the current Covid-19 pandemic, however, many similarities can be found. Sternburg shared an article from the archives regarding students quarantining and the college being closed due to the rise of the severity of the pandemic throughout the world. In the October 18, 1918 edition of the Sioux Falls Stylus, a student writes, “S. F. C. classes are discontinued until the influenza epidemic has passed. This was entirely a precautionary measure, for there are no cases in the school…The students were not daunted at the closing of schools and churches. Are they idle? No, they are using this unexpected vacation to good advantage. Even faculty members are picking corn.” Later, the article read, “The Dorm girls went to church last Sunday. Where? In their own parlors! True piety found a means of expression and Prof. Martini let the lesson study in the Y. W. C. A. room Sunday morning.”

Speaking on the 1918 pandemic, USF History Professor Dr. Jackson reflected that “college campuses across the United States were deeply affected by the 1918 pandemic, which only compounded the challenges of managing through the First World War. Sioux Falls College actually shut down completely for a few weeks.” Quarantining is most definitely not a new idea, as well as shut-downs and precautions.

Morale and ideas surrounding pandemics can shift from century to century, but Jackson shared how some are relatively the same. “Pandemics have had devastating impacts on human societies throughout history, and there are some recognizable patterns. Fear, isolation, and ‘scapegoating’ are unfortunately typical reactions to pandemics. Pandemics have a way of exposing pre-existing fault lines within societies, and of hitting the most vulnerable and marginalized groups hardest. In that broad sense, the Covid-19 pandemic and the 1918 Flu outbreak are similar.”

Sternburg also shared many documents regarding morale around the pandemic of the time, some with differing opinions on how to handle it. Medically, however, the response to COVID-19 is different from the 1918 Flu pandemic. Jackson said that because of an improvement in medical technology and knowledge, “effective treatments can be developed far more rapidly and spread more broadly than ever before…and then to have wildly effective vaccines within about a year of the initial cases is an astonishing feat of modern medical science, unrivaled in history.”

Sternburg and Jackson both agreed about the importance of documenting history, including the history we are living through. “I have been so conscious of this over the past year, where it was crystal clear that we were all living through a historical moment of change. Understanding how everyone–and I do mean everyone, not just so-called ‘important’ or ‘influential’ people–dealt with the immense challenges posed by Covid-19 is vital for an accurate representation of the past.” Jackson then shared something that everyone can do to preserve and be a part of history. “Help out future historians, and safeguard your journals, correspondence, and any other documents you can!”

Photos courtesy of Annie Sternburg

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