As we all struggle to sort out information and misinformation about Covid-19, I came across the following article from Dr. David Hicks, Deputy Health Officer for Jefferson County that is worthy of your time:

“As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we would do well to heed the lessons of history. In the throes of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and World War I; Jefferson County residents were asked to alter their daily lives and make sacrifices much like we are today.

Just as we promote handwashing and use of hand sanitizers, several antiseptic solutions were used then to decrease the spread of disease. During that pandemic, Birmingham schools were used as emergency hospitals. During this pandemic, local hospital executives, our Health Officer, the Army Corp of Engineers and others made rigorous surge capacity plans in case our hospitals or nursing homes get overwhelmed.

Dr. Judson Dowling, the Jefferson County Health Officer in 1918, closed all schools, picture shows, churches, and public gatherings as the epidemic worsened. Social distancing was a significant public health strategy, as one local newspaper noted “that large numbers of citizens are isolating themselves so far as possible during the epidemic.” One columnists wrote, “The children are out of school and naturally restless, but parents would be doing the city a great service by forbidding their children from gathering in the streets with their playmates or visiting other homes until the epidemic has spent its force and has been subdued.”

Dr. Dowling wrote, “We are convinced that the wearing of a simple gauze face mask is the most practical and efficient general method at our command to limit the spread of influenza. The cooperation of every organization and every person in the city of Birmingham and the entire community is requested in our efforts to popularize this movement…. A person wearing one of these masks not only enjoys almost absolute protection, but the added satisfaction of knowing that he is not dangerous to his neighbor.” Store clerks were expected to wear face masks and the Pastors Union asked their congregants to do the same.

These measures indeed flattened the epidemic curve, but it wasn’t without economic harm. Coal production and retail sales were down. Despite that, citizens were asked to purchase Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort. Nevertheless, the collective community made tremendous sacrifice on behalf of the greater good. In the local newspaper, it was noted that, “In response to the magnificent co-operation of the general public – many of whom have made considerable personal sacrifice to aid the cause – the first ray of light broke through the epidemic cloud….” The community understood that their individual choices would greatly impact their collective survival.

That generation bore the ‘Greatest Generation’ that, in turn, survived the Great Depression and won World War II. Even in these and other times of national tragedy and hardship, Americans have stood in solidarity against common foes. In early 1799, the U.S. Congress, during the President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson administration, passed the first public health laws and soon thereafter, health departments began to be formed. In fact, patriot Paul Revere was the first President of Boston’s Board of Health.

The Jefferson County Department of Health was formed in 1917 after the community demanded more concerted efforts to control several recent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever. Just as it was then, we are facing a formidable foe the likes of which most of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. COVID-19 is not as lethal as the Spanish flu but has certainly wielded widespread damage to society.

The practice of public health must strike a balance between what some view as unnecessary encroachments on civil liberties and our duty and obligation to protect against public health threats. As noted in a 2007 essay by virologist Reinhard Kurth, “individual rights should be a very high priority in any situation, but these rights should be trumped by the ‘right’ of the public to be protected. Each case has to be evaluated on its own terms and if—and only if—an individual refuses to comply with voluntary measures, then compulsory measures should be enforced.”

Public health laws and regulations such as mandatory vaccinations, tobacco control measures, motor vehicle safety and many others place limits on individuals’ liberties, but save millions of lives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot afford failing to act. We must ask ourselves who we are as Americans and Alabamians. Let us not be mistaken. When knocked down, we get right back up. We are resilient. We care for others. We support each other. Let us unite to defeat this foe just as our ancestors did. Let history show that we survived – together.”