The white scarf on the door: a lifestyles-saving lesson from the 1918 flu
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The white scarf on the door: a lifestyles-saving lesson from the 1918 flu

In 1918, a white scarf tied to the door of my grandmother’s family’s apartment on the North Facet of Chicago alerted the neighborhood to a virus residing within. My grandmother, then age 3, was one in every of 500 million other folks worldwide — one-third of the planet’s population— who was infected with what came to be known as the Spanish influenza. It killed an estimated 50 million other folks.

white scarf Elinor Elisberg
The author’s grandmother, Elinor Elisberg, left, sits along with her father, Max, and her sister Marcia.Photo courtesy Kara Goldman

She was quarantined in her room, unable to communicate with the exterior world. Her parents and older sister stayed in their apartment, heeding metropolis-wide warnings to avoid exposing others in their neighborhood to the disease.

My grandmother may later recall with eerie detail the isolation and the fear, and the image burned into her brain of coffins passing by her window. Neighbors who have been healthy one day have been dead the following.


Elinor Elisberg Miller survived. She went to college at Northwestern College. She was fascinated by microbiology, probably influenced by her early experiences. She became a biology teacher in Chicago public excessive faculties — although had she grown up a few decades later I’m certain she would have been a doctor. She married a very honest correct man, had three kids, celebrated the births of three granddaughters, lived to dote on four great-grandkids, celebrated her 100th birthday with beer and a whole bunch of her closest company, and passed peacefully at nearly 103 years of age.

My grandmother’s story may have ended in a different way. She survived to live an incredibly prolonged, fat lifestyles, as did her sister and parents, because they have been smart. As the flu swept via Chicago, they practiced the kind of social distancing and quarantine that is today being actively sanctioned but inadequately applied. Because of their white scarf and caution, they saved each various and their neighbors, company, and colleagues, as smartly as their doctors.


Fast forward to 2020. As Miller’s granddaughter, a physician living with —and working within — today’s pandemic, I find her story compelling and relevant. The average mortality rates for the two pandemics appear to be similar: 2.5% during the 1918 Spanish Flu and between 1.5% and 3% from early estimates of Covid-19. At least for now, the average pace of disease development appears slower with Covid-19. My grandmother recalled hearing limitless stories of healthy individuals who went to work in the morning and never came home.

With Covid-19, many other folks infected with the radical coronavirus don’t indicate any symptoms for days. That means there’s no way to relate who in the neighborhood is contagious. So the handiest way to provide yourself with protection and others is by limiting unnecessary contact. Each infection that isn’t spread makes us all safer.

Although we have had a few months to anticipate the disaster heading toward us, instead of white scarves and massive efforts to provide protection to our neighbors and communities we see spring breakers and large denial. For our health care team of workers, a tragic lack of personal protecting gear means that my company and colleagues are putting their lives on the line without accurate protection and reusing the few masks they’ve been able to acquire via their workplace or via personal contacts and social media. In an irony that may never have been predicted 100 years ago as my grandmother’s family placed a white scarf on its doorknob, our healthcare companies are being asked to repurpose bandanas and scarves into homemade masks.

The least each of us can achieve is take a lesson from generations earlier than us: Stop the spread of Covid-19 by staying home. Carry out it for yourself, your family, and your neighbors. Carry out it for the vulnerable: those with cancer or who’ve had organ transplants, those with lung disease, elderly parents and grandparents, pregnant ladies folk, and the listing goes on.

Carry out it for those that work in hospitals and who will care for you and your family in the occasion you get sick. They are going to continue to achieve the roles they’ve trained for despite the fact that they are at particularly excessive danger for developing excessive cases of Covid-19, even those that are younger and healthy. Health care workers admire me desperately want to stay healthy so we can continue working and caring for our patients and our families.

Stay home so your grandchild can one day relate the story of this pivotal moment when socially in charge other folks — admire yourself — applied the lessons of those that came earlier than us.

And in the occasion you are home with Covid-19, train your time and your drawl to advocate for rapid production of personal protecting gear and medical affords for health care companies. Then tie a white scarf to your door. It doesn’t mean you are giving up. Actual the reverse: it means you are fully in the combat and sending a message your neighborhood and the sector that we are all in this together.

Kara N. Goldman, M.D., is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern College Feinberg College of Medicine.