COVID-19, Education, General, Health & Wellness

Learning From the Past – Comparing the 1918 Flu Pandemic and COVID-19

George Santayana Quote

Looking Back in History

As we navigate the current COVID-19 Pandemic, I’ve found myself looking back in history at the 1918 Flu Pandemic (Spanish Flu) to see what lessons could be learned from that outbreak and how it compares to what we’re facing right now.

 Top 5 Takeaways

After reviewing several articles and the 1918 Flu Pandemic Historic Timeline on the CDC website (which is a fascinating read, by the way), here are the top 5 takeaways I’ve gleaned from the experts:

  1. The 1918 Flu was more infectious (contagious) than COVID-19, caused symptoms much faster, was far more deadly, and targeted the young (and healthy) disproportionately.
  2. Despite those differences, the similarities between the 1918 Flu and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic are noteworthy. In both situations, there was (is):

– No vaccine or treatment for the disease

– An ongoing fear that the health care system would be overwhelmed by a surge in infections (and the effect that would have on the overall death toll).

– The most effective immediate response was (and is) social distancing.

  1. Social distancing, the only disease-mitigating practice we had (& have) in lieu of a safe and effective treatment or vaccine, exposed (and is exposing) the clash between the scientific reality (needing comprehensive closures and social distancing to stop the spread of the disease) and socioeconomic concerns (the effect of widespread closures and social distancing on the economy).

This is the tension we’re seeing at the moment.

In Alan Mozes’ article, “Four Lessons From the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic,” the similarities between the 1918 Flu pandemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of what was believed and how things were handled, is easy to see.

According to Carolyn Orbann, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia quoted in the article, “As with all pandemics, in 1918 you had a tension between biological reality and socioeconomic reality. Biology is not changeable. But behavior is… Social distancing was absolutely a thing in 1918, and where it was practiced, it worked.”

Dr. Orbann continues, “But out of fear, panic, mistrust, special interests—and even sheer boredom, many were too slow to get on board and too quick to jump ship.”

  1. There was an absence of an early and comprehensive response to the pandemic by the federal government.

Thomas Ewing, Ph.D., professor of history and associate dean of graduate studies and research at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Christopher McKnight Nichols, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, were also quoted in the article:

– “That tension helps explain the absence of an early and forceful federal response in 1918. Instead, officials played down the risk and stalled for time,” according to Nichols and Ewing.

– “At first, they tell the public it’s not a big problem, or—as the name suggests—that it’s a foreign disease that only affects ‘others,’” Nichols said.

In the fall, after a more virulent form of the Spanish Flu emerged, the federal government eventually mounted a more vigorous response to the pandemic.

Before that, the absence of a federal response “left cities and states to go off on their own and make decisions for themselves,” according to Nichols. “Many chose the economy over public health—and they put off social distancing with fateful results…. There’s no business-as-usual during a pandemic.”

If you have time, give Mozes’ article a read. I’m quoting from it heavily because of the remarkable parallels between the pandemic beliefs and responses in 1918 and 2020.

5. A second (and third) wave of infections occurred (& are currently predicted).

– In the 1918 Flu pandemic, there was a second wave in the U.S. between September and November, which was highly fatal and responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic.

Continued Social Distancing, Increased Testing and Contact Tracing are Necessary

The comparison above is alarming, as is the sheer number of people infected with COVID-19  and the number who have succumbed to this disease.

The importance of continued social distancing, increased testing and contact tracing (individuals exposed to infected people)—as well as socio-economic support and funding, cannot be overstated.

In order for most people to feel comfortable re-engaging in society, wide scale testing for everyone—including people who are sick, have had exposure to someone with a positive test, are asymptomatic carriers (a positive test with no symptoms) and those with antibodies (indicating your immune system has seen coronavirus)—is a must.

COVID-19 is a novel (new) virus and although we’re learning more about it every day, we still don’t know everything there is to know about this disease.

Even still, there is a middle ground between “never leaving the house” due to fear, and thinking this pandemic is “no big deal” due to a lack of understanding or knowledge (I couldn’t disagree more with this belief).

That middle ground involves staying informed and doing what we know works (hand washing and social distancing).

As we continue our efforts to combat COVID-19, we need to base our decisions on science, data, and the facts—as well as the advice of the medical professionals who have experience with this disease.

Learning From the Past

Remembering and examining our history helps us to learn from the past and can provide a framework for obtainable lessons in the present—if we are willing.

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