Historical parallels: Pandemic a century later
One hundred notorious years ago, a virus emerged out of the cornfields of Kansas, infecting 500 million people and killing more than 50 million poor souls around the world.
This was the Spanish Flu, one of the most lethal pandemics in human history. Most victims who died suffered terrible pneumonia, some literally drowning in their own sputum. The lungs of those afflicted would fill with fluids and their skin became blue from the lack of oxygen. The most likely to die were in the prime of life between the ages 15 to 40 years and tragically, many were the main breadwinners for their families.
One hundred years ago, the H1N1 influenza pandemic killed more than 638 people on Guam. The death toll accounted for approximately 5 percent of the island's population. During that same period, other Pacific island communities in Tonga, Nauru, French Polynesia and especially Samoa also suffered greatly as thousands lost their lives to the virus.
The year was 1918 and the German navy cruiser SMS Cormoran was newly scuttled to the bottom of Apra Harbor after U.S. Marine Corporal Michael B. Chockie fired a shot across the doomed ship’s bow thus committing the first American act of war in World War I.
Atkins Kroll had begun to consolidate copra production from throughout Micronesia with shipments from Guam to the rest of the world for the production of fine soaps and cosmetics. A few years earlier in 1916, the naval government opened the Bank of Guam, the island’s very first bank.
Despite these glimmers of progress, life on Guam was tough and it was about to get tougher as World War I ended with the signing of the Armistice on the Western Front in November 1918. As weary soldiers slowly made their way back home, the Spanish Flu pandemic circled the world, leaving economies devastated and people faced with the choice to either persevere or die.
Today, as we suffer through the Covid-19 pandemic, the juxtaposition of time, events and murderous viruses leaves much for the mind to ponder.
In 2020, the nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was the first ship in the U.S. Navy to have a Covid-19 outbreak while at sea. As military leaders in North Korea and China watched the events unfold in speechless wonder, Captain Brett Crozier docked the massive boat in Apra Harbor and famously pleaded with the Navy to evacuate his crew.
In a magnificent display of cooperativity and respect, sick sailors were evacuated and treated. Emergency field hospitals were quickly erected. In these dark, early hours of the pandemic, Guam’s civilian and local military leadership together manifested innovative solutions and likely saved many lives.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero — former CEO/president of the bank established by the naval government more than a century ago — had to make many tough decisions in the name of public health in order to effectuate the island’s civilian pandemic intervention. These decisions were made to lessen the stress on the already failing Guam public health care system.
The catastrophic consequence of the government of Guam’s legacy of deferred maintenance, the island’s designated Covid-19 hospital was woefully unprepared especially in terms of the availability of intensive care beds.
Because of GovGuam’s management failures in public health and in the unaccredited Guam Memorial Hospital, the island’s health care system could not be trusted to save lives. In order to avoid the predictable death of hundreds of people, the governor was forced to impose un-American restrictions on civil liberties which subsequently resulted in the shutdown of much of the local private sector economy.
Despite the governor’s actions over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has infected almost 10,000 islanders and killed more than 130 people on Guam. During that same period, other Pacific island communities in the Northern Marianas, Tonga, Nauru, Samoa and especially Chuuk have been relatively spared from the deadly effects of the virus.
Even amid recent glimmers of progress, Covid-19 has laid waste to even the best-made plans of politicians all across the globe. The hubris of the world’s most expensive medical systems has been manifested and decapitated in a single news cycle.
In America, shambolic leadership at the highest levels contributed to the death of more than 600,000 people. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s bombast was silenced by suffocating pulmonary disease. In India and Taiwan, they gasped.
As of the last week of June, the official pandemic death toll all over the world was 3.92 million and rising. Almost certainly, this is a vast undercount not acknowledging those who died from other diseases because healthcare systems and hospitals were overwhelmed by Covid. The World Health Organization recently recognized that the true Covid death toll may be now well over 7 million dead worldwide.
Like the Spanish Flu, Covid-19 forces us to tell the truth to each other. With global economies devastated, people are now faced with the choice to persevere or die. To survive, we have to do what we say we are going to do. The virus doesn’t respect deceitful doublespeak. She has no time for your political excuses. As the Lady said, this virus is still a b****.
Dr. Vince Akimoto practices Family Medicine at the American Medical Clinic. Send feedback to email@example.com