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About a century ago the Spanish flu pandemic swept the globe just as COVID-19 has done this year. Spanish flu killed nearly 400,000 people in Japan, including more than 30,000 in the Tohoku region.

The Kahoku Shimpo has looked back at how the region coped with the pandemic back then, drawing on its past articles, and was surprised at the striking similarity to what Japan and the world is dealing with now: the economic slump, a collapse in the medical system, school shutdowns and face mask shortages.

In its Dec. 12, 1918 edition, Kahoku Shimpo reported that the virus caused a cluster in the 2nd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army stationed in Sendai, overwhelming a local hospital.

“Medical staff are working around the clock without sleep or a break. Rooms at the Imperial Japanese Army hospital in Sendai are full at capacity, forcing patients to sleep in the recreation room and cafeteria,” the daily said.

The military hospital, located near what is now the Miyagi Prefectural Government Office, had a capacity of 148 patients, but had to treat nearly 200 patients who became infected.

Most of the regimental units prioritized patients with severe cases for hospitalization. But the condition of patients who initially had only mild symptoms gradually deteriorated, which caused the hospitalization of about 35 patients on a daily basis.

“I’ve been in the military for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve faced so many deaths of first-year soldiers,” a second lieutenant said in an interview with the daily two days later. “Commanders are struggling to cope with the deaths of soldiers day by day.”

Because of the pandemic, medical officers within the military were forced to deal with the situation day and night.

A poster from the internal affairs ministry from 1918 and 1919 encourages people to wear masks and gargle after returning home. | KAHOKU SHIMPO
A poster from the internal affairs ministry from 1918 and 1919 encourages people to wear masks and gargle after returning home. | KAHOKU SHIMPO

Since soldiers train in units, the virus tended to spread fast once someone became infected. Rookie soldiers, still adjusting to their new lives in the military, seemed particularly vulnerable to the disease.

But even though they suffered from casualties in the first wave of the outbreak, once the immediate crisis eased the 2nd Division and the military hospital didn’t seem to take steps to prevent a recurrence.

When another wave struck the region a year later, Kahoku Shimpo reported in its Dec. 17, 1919 edition that the “Imperial Japan Army hospital is busy like it’s in the midst of a war.”

A month later the hospital was overflowing with patients, causing its medical system to collapse.

“Hospital rooms are full and patients are dying every day,” Kahoku Shimpo reported on Jan. 10, 1920. “Since they are accepting more patients than they can treat, they are planning to use the chief nurse’s room for patients, too.”

Hospital beds were not the only things in short supply. There was a shortage of nurses as well.

After the terms expired for 10 nurses dispatched to the army hospital from the Red Cross, the hospital hired 15 new staff and was looking for more.

Earlier this year, in the COVID-19 era, Japan’s medical system did near the verge of a collapse.

Municipalities have signed contracts with hotels and inns so that asymptomatic patients and those with mild symptoms are able to self-quarantine.

And the national government is asking prefectural governments to draft plans in order to secure beds when another wave hits the country.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published June 30.

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