The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented crisis. Despite the fact that much is unknown, we can still learn by studying the past.
COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, differs from yellow fever, a disease spread by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. But as the saying goes, history repeats itself. As a case study, let’s look back at how Florida reacted to the yellow fever outbreak in the late 1880s.
1. Quarantines and limited movement
The outbreak of the late 1880s was not the first time Tampa had experienced the yellow fever. But after the city’s cigar business blossomed, more residents and visitors ushered in a new wave of the disease, wrote Professor Eirlys Barker in a research paper titled, “A Sneaky, Cowardly Enemy.”
It started with an outbreak from Cuba that spread to Key West in May 1887. Soon the disease crept over to Tampa.
Two months later, Florida set up a U.S. Marine hospital for sick Key West refugees on Egmont Key in Tampa Bay, wrote Geoffrey Mohlman in the paper “An Island Fortress: Egmont Key’s Fort Dade.” Just as frontline coronavirus workers today have gotten sick or died due to their jobs, some of the hospital’s workers contracted yellow fever from patients.
As cases of the illness trickled into Tampa, residents fled. Those who had already been exposed brought yellow fever to other parts of Florida, Barker wrote.
Jacksonville, hit especially hard, ended up banning people and products from Tampa in an effort to curb the outbreak.
“All persons arriving here from Tampa, Plant City and Manatee will be arrested at the depot and sent to Sand Hills [hospital]," the city declared.
By October 1887, Tampa refugees had spread it to the new 300-resident town of Plant City, Barker wrote. Cases increased there through the winter, and though Tampa’s infections slowed by the spring, Plant City was still in danger. By May 1888, Plant City was put under quarantine.
A May 1888 article in The Weekly Tribune laid out the rules: The Plant City mayor was to “take immediate steps to have removed out of town all persons who have not had yellow fever. And should he find it necessary he will call on the sheriff or his deputy to execute his order.” Those who didn’t obey would be arrested and kept under guard until dismissed by the Board of Health.
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Georgia was so afraid of Floridians coming that they blocked travelers unless they had a card stating they had already survived the disease.
“The state of Georgia imposed a quarantine, or an embargo, against Floridians fleeing the state, much as we are trying to do with New Yorkers,” said historian Gary Mormino.
Immunity cards are being used today in places like Chile, Germany and China. On Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the United States government might even consider giving Americans who survived the coronavirus “certificates of immunity.” Rather than use the cards as passes for movement, the federal government thinks the idea could open up businesses and get the economy moving again.
2. Shortages and job loss
Today toilet paper, yeast and hand sanitizer are some of the hardest items for the average consumer to come by, while healthcare workers struggle with shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment.
Shortages posed huge problems for Tampa in the late 1880s, too. Tampa rejected shipments of nearly all goods from Key West and Havana out of fear that infected cargo would further spread the disease, only accepting tobacco and U.S. mail after heavy fumigation.
Ships from other areas, unable to dock and bring goods ashore, avoided the Tampa port. This outbreak arrived right in the middle of the Gilded Age, when national transportation and communication systems allowed goods to finally be transported across the country.
“You’re really having a national economy for the first time, and once you get locked out of this, it’s panic to say the least," Mormino said.
Before travel restrictions set in, wealthy Tampa residents fled for the mountains of North Carolina, Mormino said. But many who worked for them were left behind without employment or resources.
An October 1888 Tampa Tribune story reported, “Colored people, whose employers left without warning, [left] them without money or means of sustenance."
3. Scapegoating and racism
President Trump has blamed China for COVID-19, calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” as acts of violence continue to be committed on Asian Americans. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blamed New Yorkers and other states for bringing the disease to Florida.
The blame game goes back as far as 1887, too. Ybor City’s cigar trade was starting to flourish in the 1880s. The Cubans and Spaniards who worked there were met with suspicion as outbreaks of the fever spread from Havana.
“Tampa’s tax base was really built upon Ybor City, but they never really liked the people of Ybor City," Mormino said. “Every time there’s an epidemic, it’s always blamed on Ybor.”
There’s no way of knowing how many people have been exposed and could be shedding the virus without symptoms. The FDA has yet to approve an antibody test. Millions hunkering down at home are wondering the same question: How long will this last?
Today, we know yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes that bite infected people and spread their blood to others. But for decades, people lived in fear. Much like the coronavirus, infected people lived with the disease for a period before symptoms showed up.
People took advantage of the anxiety Tampa residents felt, placing ads in the papers for quack cures like ice baths and drinking pulverized charcoal, Mormino said. Cities shot off canons at night and burned barrels of tar, thinking the disease came from bad air drifting from the swamps.
“No one understood the cause of this,” he said.
All of this led to more panic. Even a story on the front page of the New York Times, titled “Wild Excitement,” reported on the anxiety in Tampa.
“The fever seems to have supplanted reason, no one seemingly knowing what treatment to adopt, and everyone, even physicians, seeking safety in flight," the article said. "The city is now virtually deserted.”
Those who stayed were confused about quarantine rules. An August 1990 Tampa Tribune article documented “how ubiquitous guards stood duty to the disgust and inconvenience of the general public.”
A man named G.O. Turner went to Sulphur Springs for a Saturday outing and was stopped by a guard on his way home. He had unknowingly gone into a quarantine zone and was stuck.
“Thus we see that even the tender ties that bind husband and wife, father and children, become naught in a yellow fever quarantine,” the article read. “At last reports, Mr. Turner was threatening to swim the Hillsborough and walk to Tampa, and had to be forcibly restrained from carrying his threat into execution.”
Eventually with advances in science, yellow fever was contained. Let’s call that hope.
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