Column: What Michigan’s response to the 1918 flu epidemic can teach us about the COVID pandemic

April 5, 2021 6:49 am

A man wears a ‘I Do Not Comply’ pin at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) | Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

On Jan. 11, 2021, nine officials from Baraga County in the Upper Peninsula signed a letter stating that they would not enforce restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19. 

This letter arrived as Michigan had just confirmed nearly 520,000 cases and roughly 13,000 deaths. Those numbers have risen to more than 692,000 cases and more than 16,000 deaths as of Saturday.

Baraga County officials condemned the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration’s pandemic orders, stating, “The People of the State of Michigan have endured restrictions on their freedoms which have not been seen in North America since the days of King George III and the American Revolution.” Baraga County Sheriff Joe Brogan went on to tell local news WJMN-TV, “We understand that the threat of the pandemic is a real threat, but it should be up to the business owner and the customer if they choose to dine in, and not the government essentially telling people who can business and who cannot.”  

Not only are the contents of this letter patently false and without historical context, but Brogan’s comments highlight a troubling misunderstanding that public health is a matter of personal responsibility. Public health is a collective matter, which affects and requires the cooperation of everyone. 

Comments like the one made by Brogan could be seen throughout the 1918 influenza epidemic in Michigan. Dr. Clyde C. Slemons, the city health officer of Grand Rapids at the time, said to the Grand Rapids Herald during the city’s flu epidemic, “The prevention and spread of any contagious disease are solely a matter of personal responsibility. This rule is divided among those who are ill and those who are well. Those who are ill should in all cases keep away from those who are well and those who are well should keep away from those who are ill.”

The Baraga County letter uses the same argument as Slemons, stating that personal liberties come before the health of the community and that people should be responsible for making decisions for themselves.

We’ve heard the word “unprecedented” thrown around a lot throughout this last year, but protest against public health orders has a rich history. 

During the 1918 influenza epidemic, many Michiganders, including public health officials from Grand Rapids and Detroit, fought against orders from Gov. Albert Sleeper and the state health board closing nonessential business. Public health officials, including Slemons and Dr. James W. Inches of Detroit, decried the governor’s orders, believing that restricting business would harm the economy and cause people to panic. 

The difference between 1918 and now is that although public health officials like Slemons and Inches opposed the governor’s order, they still enforced the order, which created a fairly uniform statewide response to the epidemic.  

In our current moment, county officials refusing to follow and enforce restrictions not only hurts the people of the county, but it also harms the entire state. Collective action is the only way to effectively deal with a pandemic. If restrictions are enforced in one place, they need to be enforced everywhere. The idea that adhering to COVID-19 guidelines is up to personal choice only works to undermine those guidelines and further spread disease.

Uniform statewide, or better yet, nationwide guidelines and restrictions help to limit confusion when trying to understand current restrictions. When local officials refuse to administer state guidelines and restrictions, they contribute to the confusion and hurt our chances of limiting deaths caused by COVID-19. 

This letter signed by the Baraga County officials lacks historical context and simplistically evokes the American Revolution, which is not in any way related to the current crisis. 

These officials have failed to understand their own state’s history dealing with a deadly virus. The 1918 influenza epidemic proved that statewide restrictions work and should be enforced even if officials don’t agree with them. 


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Nate Turner
Nate Turner

Nate Turner is a recent graduate from Eastern Michigan University where he earned a bachelor's degree in history. He writes primarily about medical history, focusing on the history of pandemics. He's written extensively on the 1918 influenza pandemic, HIV/AIDS in the US as well as in Africa, and on the various plagues. He is from Grand Haven.