The last pandemic that closely parallels coronavirus was the 1918 Spanish Flu. Most everyone who survived that pandemic didn’t live to give us guidance today, but for many of us, we have a family history that provides sage advice. My great-grandfather died from the Flu in 1919. He didn’t follow the admonitions given by the government health experts and didn’t social distance. From family lore, he created his own protocols that likely cost him his life. It wasn’t his death that was as impactful to our family; it was who he left behind and how they had to engage their survival skills during the pandemic, and the economic depression that followed. My great-grandfather left behind a young widow who never remarried and three daughters between the ages of 18 months and 10 years. From their experience, resilience and survival became a part of our family’s DNA.
Part of my coronavirus resilience and survival plan is research into areas least affected by the 1918 Flu. Gunnison, Colorado, was a mountain town of 1,300 people, where farming and mining were primary industries. It was also a rail stop with two railroads connecting it to more populous cities, including Denver. Gunnison was able to escape the devastation virtually every other community in the United States suffered by implementing some key protocols. Gunnison’s newspaper gave advance warning of the flu and its destruction in more populous areas. The advance notice of the coming pandemic is thought to have put the townsfolk on high alert and helped inspire the residents to prepare to hunker down for an extended period. In response to the news that the flu was spreading, Gunnison declared a “quarantine against all the world.” They barricaded the entryways to the town, isolated visitors, arrested violators, and prevented any public gatherings whatsoever. Gunnison’s lockdown lasted for four months.
Gunnison’s efforts, though extreme, worked. The first two waves of the flu, which were by far the deadliest, came and went without a single case in Gunnison. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 million and 100 million people, and Gunnison was virtually unscathed. No doubt the lockdown was severe and at times folks went stir crazy being cooped up. I would guess there were some, like my great-grandfather, who thought all the hype was hooey and an overreaction. But after the flu passed, I’d bet my bottom dollar the entire community was relieved to have their families and community still intact.
We don’t need living narratives to learn the lessons of the past. Our defense of this virus is us. We can’t block our highways, but we can self-contain. Stay home. Limit your time at the grocery store and gas station. Let’s be Gunnison today so that we can be our best Flathead Valley tomorrow.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.