“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”
― Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
While our country, along with the rest of the world, struggles with the challenge of defeating a pandemic that has taken countless lives, devastated economies, and put millions out of work, there is now cause for optimism. A life-saving vaccine produced in record time gives hope and a reason to celebrate this Christmas.
This isn’t the first time the world has faced similar hardships and did so with far less scientific knowledge and medical expertise.
Plagued by financial problems in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” out of necessity, completing it in just six weeks, just in time for Christmas.
“A Christmas Carol” has become one of the Western world’s most beloved holiday stories. It has been translated into several languages and been adapted many times for film, stage, and opera, and most recently by Juneau’s own Perseverance Theatre in an Indigenous adaptation, “A Tlingit Christmas Carol.”
Seventy-five years later, the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, swept the world in a series of waves and infected 500 million people – a third of the world’s population at the time. The death toll has been estimated to have been somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
Much like today, quarantine rules were established, large gatherings were discouraged, social distancing and masking were often required. Most schools across the country closed. Complicating the response to this pandemic were the necessary logistics of fighting a war in Europe where pandemic precautions were often impractical.
Because Alaska was remote and sparsely populated, the Spanish flu arrived later in the Territory than in other areas of the U.S. The first cases in Alaska struck in October of 1918.
According to an Alaska Department of Health and Social Services study, 1,113 influenza deaths occurred during the 2-year pandemic period, 962 in 1918, and 151 in 1919. The monthly number of deaths peaked at 831 just before Christmas, 1918.
With Alaska’s population at approximately 58,000 in 1917, this was an extraordinarily high number of deaths. Extrapolating the 1918-1919 death rate calculations on the state’s 2016 population indicate a similar pandemic would have resulted in almost 14,000 deaths in Alaska today.
Unlike the current pandemic, the largest proportion of influenza deaths were in persons aged 30 to 44 years (30%), followed by those aged 0 to 14 years (24%). The vast majority (81.7%) of deaths were Alaska Natives, mostly from the Nome area.
In Southeast Alaska, 76 flu deaths were recorded, a little under half of those from Juneau. Higher deaths were recorded in the Anchorage/Matanuska-Susitna area and Southwest Alaska and Gulf Coast communities.
Local newspapers in Juneau and the neighboring town of Douglas reported on the pandemic but did so with restraint. Home study school assignments were published in the newspaper each week. Editorial comment suggested tongue-in-cheek that masks “…give that added touch of mystery that is so appealing to the average person.”
The day after Christmas, 1918, with 70 patients hospitalized, The Daily Alaska Empire reported “a very quiet Christmas for all Douglas Island residents yesterday. Owing to quarantine regulations, no Christmas parties or Christmas tree festivities were in evidence. The mail boat was in, however, and there was plenty of good cheer, Christmas packages and word from the loved ones at home.”
Just one year later, Christmas Eve, 1919, the same newspaper reported the following: “Juneau fairly pulsated today with the holiday Christmas spirit, which will be the culmination of several days of shopping tomorrow. Starting this evening, Christmas tree entertainments will be held nearly every evening.”
A century ago, despite the challenges, it seems Alaskans weathered the historic pandemic with good humor and resolve.
As Alaskans now embark on the New Year approaching, a positive attitude and willingness to help our neighbors will speed our recovery.
And as Dickens’ character, Tiny Tim, famously said, “God bless us, every one!”
• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.