COVID-19 isn’t first pandemic to threaten Mississippians

Published 3:37 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2020

While the state of Mississippi currently has no known or reported cases, the growing global concern over probable U.S. impacts from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic certainly should not be wasted on Mississippians.

To be sure, unwarranted panic or fear of COVID-19 should be discouraged. The Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) is currently reporting: “The risk of infection to the Mississippi public continues to be low. To date, there are no cases in Mississippi and no suspects under investigation for potential infection.”

Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as of Feb. 29 reports there were a total of 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., including those repatriated to the U.S. from cruise ships abroad or from Wuhan, China. Various university medical schools around the country have gauged the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at 74 and 76.

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Again, none of those cases are in Mississippi and none have been reported in the Southeast. That’s the good news. But pandemics, particularly influenza, are a significant part of the history of the U.S. and that history touches Mississippi.

Just over a century ago, Mississippi took a significant hit in the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918-19. Writing for the Mississippi Encyclopedia, University of Southern Mississippi anthropologist and librarian Diane DeCesare Ross observed:

“Mississippi was not immune to worldwide influenza pandemic that struck in 1918–19, killing as many as forty million people around the globe. The Spanish flu reached the state in September 1918 and was acute for only a little over a month, but by the end of the year, 6,219 Mississippians had died, most of them infants and adults aged twenty-five to thirty-five.

“Adams and Sunflower Counties had the highest death rates, while George and Stone Counties had the lowest rates. The epidemic peaked in Mississippi on 22 October, when 9,842 new cases were reported. The incidence of disease subsequently declined gradually, with a brief recurrence in January 1919.”

Noted historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza and Rising Tide: The Great Flood of 1927, wrote in 2017 of his concerns for exactly the type of global pandemic threat that COVID-19 is said to represent:

“We are arguably as vulnerable — or more vulnerable — to another pandemic as we were in 1918. Today top public health experts routinely rank influenza as potentially the most dangerous ‘emerging’ health threat we face. Earlier this year, upon leaving his post as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tom Frieden was asked what scared him the most, what kept him up at night. ‘The biggest concern is always for an influenza pandemic… [It] really is the worst-case scenario.’ So, the tragic events of 100 years ago have a surprising urgency — especially since the most crucial lessons to be learned from the disaster have yet to be absorbed.”

Poignantly, the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak remains a part of the lore of Mississippi State University. George Hall, now an academic building, was built as the university’s original infirmary. A sufficient number of MSU cadets were afflicted with the deadly flu that the basement of the infirmary was converted temporarily as a makeshift morgue.

Able then-Mississippi A&M students built coffins for their classmates and wagons transported the coffins of the approximately 20 students who died to the campus railroad depot.

By either party, politicization of the COVID-19 outbreak is misguided and dangerous in the extreme. So, too, is overstating the threat or understating the potential dangers. In 1918, Mississippians argued over the closing of county fairs and pool halls as a means to stop the spread of the disease.

Some of our Mississippi ancestors failed to take the threat of global pandemic flu seriously a century ago when mass communications were primitive and public health controls were lax and unwieldy. Surely, we won’t make that mistake again in the 21st century.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at