Terry McAteer: A brief history of California’s pandemics and plagues: Have we learned anything?
Over California’s short history we have had a number of pandemics and plagues take its toll on the Golden State. While this generation may think this pandemic has created a “new” normal, the reality is that over the past 200 years of our history disease and death have accounted for large losses of life in California.
Even today, with better communication and better science, we seem to not have learned any lessons from our own recent history.
No one is sure how many tens of thousands of deaths occurred when the first white settlers brought smallpox and other European diseases to our native peoples of California. Diaries from missions often denote the need for more Indian labor due to the constant loss of life in the native coastal tribes contributed to smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and syphilis. These plagues were the major cause for the near extinction of many tribal communities, dating from the Mission period through the Gold Rush.
In the 1880s, a cholera epidemic hit California. Gov. George Stoneman urged the residents to prepare for the disease and sought relief funds from the legislature. The legislature balked, so it was left to local jurisdictions to inform its citizenry. San Francisco’s health board encouraged residents to boil water and add chlorinated lime, sulfur and mercury to rid the disease. Los Angeles’ Board of Supervisors on the other hand, feeding to the anti-Chinese fervor of the day, claimed that with “the great immigration that is pouring into this country we are liable to have contagious diseases planted in our midst.” In 1888, with major support from California, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act as a partial response to the cholera outbreak.
Bubonic plagues hit San Francisco in 1900 and again, in post earthquake 1907, as ships from China carried infected rats in their cargo holds. San Francisco shut down Chinatown as it thought the disease afflicted only Asians, even though many white people died. Gov. Henry Gage wanted to tamp down the news and feared it might hurt the state’s tourism business. The city paid for eradication teams who killed hundreds of thousands of the rodents.
The 1918 Spanish Flu took a huge toll of life in California, which was completely unprepared for the pandemic. In fact, my grandmother, Mabel Twohig, lost three of her siblings in the fall of that year. Amazingly, the virus mainly affected those in their 20s and 30s and did not have a huge effect upon the elderly who were partially immune due to the 1890 flu. With no national response due to our involvement in World War I, local jurisdictions were left to deal with the outbreak. In Los Angeles, debate raged on whether or not to require masks. Arguments between personal freedom and health safety never were fully resolved as thousands of Angelenos perished.
In 1924, another unknown disease was killing Los Angeles residents in poor and congested neighborhoods. Health officials thought it was a return of the Spanish Flu. When all of the people afflicted started turning deep red in color, health officials knew it was a rat-based plague. Since the Mexican community was hard hit, many citizens equated race with the outbreak instead of poverty. This plague was the last to hit the United States as health departments across the country began rat extermination programs.
In the fall of 1957, a deadly avian flu hit the United States. As schools reopened in the fall, infection rates skyrocketed. Over 100,000 Americans died from the outbreak and California experienced its fair share of cases. Statewide, over 25,000 people were infected and colleges shut down to stop the spread.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which many of us remember, began with an initial case in West Los Angeles. Gay men were hardest hit by the disease and also became politically active to help advocate for treatment and cures. While AIDS has taken the lives of over 700,000 Americans, it has been through research and funding by Californians that has helped control this pandemic.
We now face another pandemic in this state with many of the same characteristic responses taking place. We are debating the need to wear masks. We are debating the cause of either a bat or a Chinese research lab that started the pandemic. We are learning that Latinos are suffering more from the disease than others due to poverty and types of jobs. We are debating the closures of schools. We are worried about the effects on our business and tourism industries. We are realizing that we were completely unprepared for a pandemic.
One aspect is very clear though, which we can all agree upon, is that we really haven’t learned from our history.
Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at email@example.com.
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