Is history repeating itself? A modern pandemic Vs a historical pandemic

While there have been some major pandemics over the years, Covid-19 is the first global pandemic in 100 years. The last one that affected the whole world to this extent was the 1918 flu pandemic. It killed between 17 and 50 million people around the world. When looking back at history and seeing the devastation left behind from the 1918 flu pandemic, it’s tough not to see some similarities. Medicine has been advanced by leaps and bounds since 1918 and from a first look, it would appear that we are more equipped now for a global pandemic than they would have been in 1918. It seems though, that we were as unprepared this time as they were in 1918 for a pandemic of this scale. There are a lot of parallels we’re going to look at in this article to see if history is repeating itself and if looking at the 1918 flu is any help for the current pandemic.

The facts

Covid-19 is a disease that affects people in different ways. Most that fall sick with the disease suffer with mild to moderate symptoms and recover without the need of hospitalisation. The virus is transmitted through droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales. These droplets are too heavy to stay in the air so it is possible to get the virus from touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. The virus attacks the respiratory system and there is no vaccine for it yet.

The people infected during 1918 flu pandemic- also commonly known as the Spanish flu- experienced typical flu symptoms of a sore throat, fever, and a headache. It was transmitted through droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales. Covid-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic is spread the same way. The 1918 flu pandemic is considered the deadliest pandemic the world has ever known because of its high death toll. Just what made this flu so deadly though?

The history

Well, historians believe that the global pandemic that lasted for two years was so severe because the second wave was a mutated virus that was spread by wartime troop movements. When it first appeared, the virus seemed like a resilient strain of the seasonal flu. One of the first registered cases was from a U.S. army cook who was hospitalised with a 40-degree fever. After that, the virus spread through the camp and within a month 1,100 troops had been hospitalised with 38 of them dying after developing pneumonia.

The same U.S. troops that were getting infected with the virus were deployed for the war effort in Europe and brought it with them. As this was the first wave of the virus it didn’t appear particularly deadly, only lasting around three days and killing the same amount that the usual seasonal flu would.

It wasn’t until September of 1918 that the death rate rose to a significant amount. In October that year alone, 195,000 American’s died from the flu with a high number of the deaths being in the 25- to 35-year-old category. This is strange because usually, the flu took either the very young or the very old. In other words, people who did not have the immune system to fight this virus.

The biggest contribution to the spread of the virus in 1918 was the unwillingness to impose quarantine regulations. If they did, it would hinder the war effort if they did and the governments were unwilling to start a lockdown. It was particularly bad in America as they had a nurse shortage due to the war, along with the American Red Cross’s refusal to use African American nurses until the worst of the pandemic had already passed.

The current pandemic

Covid-19 is largely still in its first wave with the expectation that the second wave will hit alongside flu season. In Ireland that usually means from October to April. Currently, worldwide, there are 27 million cases and 881 thousand deaths. In the beginning, it appeared that it only affected the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, but as they learn more about this virus, it is clear it is affecting everyone in society. It was first identified in Wuhan, China and has resulted in the ongoing pandemic. As Covid-19 spread is still ongoing, different countries of the world have taken measures against contracting the virus including; quarantine, wearing face masks in public, and social distancing. When Covid-19 first appeared it seemed like a resilient respiratory infection. The WHO declared it a public health emergency of national concern in January 2020.

The Similarities

There are quite a few similarities between these two pandemics starting with where they originated from. The 1918 flu was caused by an N1H1 virus that originated in birds while Covid-19’s suspected origin is said to be bats, but there is some debate around if it was bats or another animal.

Both are considered ‘novel’, which means that they are new and there is no known immunity to them. At the beginning of Covid-19, there was a difference between the two in that the 1918 flu was affecting people between the ages of 20 to 40-year-olds. That has since changed as more and more people under 45 are getting Covid-19.

Naming the virus is something else they have in common. The Spanish flu got its name because Spain was neutral in the war and didn’t impose wartime censorship on its press. Since Spanish journalists were one of the only to report on the widespread flu outbreak it became known as the Spanish flu. The first outbreak of the flu was said to have originated in New York.

Covid-19 has another name that is mostly used in the U.S. but others use it as well. ‘The Chinese virus’ was coined by Donald Trump as he laid blame on China for the global pandemic. Both names are incorrect yet still used.

One of the biggest similarities between these two viruses is the resistance of complying with the rules in place to stop the spread of the disease. In 1918 the anti-mask league of San Francisco was created and in the October of the same year, the city passed an ordinance requiring everyone to wear a mask. The compliance to this was initially high, with 80% complying and those that did not were fined or jailed. The people resisting the masks complained of comfort, appearance, and freedom. Part of the resistance claimed that the masks were not effective as they were mere dust and dirt traps that do more harm than good. Others claimed that it was the government’s way to gain more control.

Does this sound familiar? It should because it is the same dialogue we were seeing today. Anti-mask protests are happening all around the world, claiming it is infringing on their freedom, that they can’t breathe well under it, and that it is just another way for the government to control you. Some even claim that this is all a hoax and the people that are sadly losing their lives to it are losing it due to other underlying conditions. Like with the 1918 flu, Covid-19 has had a lot of misinformation spread. A lot of these have been debunked already, and the main argument that lingers is the infringement of freedom.

Just like having to wear trousers when you go outside, wearing a mask infringes on no freedoms. The research shows that it does not affect your ability to breathe. If there was an issue with the blood oxygen levels or Co2 levels, surgeons who have to wear masks for up to 12 hours a day would be at risk for this. Thankfully that is not the case.  

It is not wrong to question the government. It is also not wrong to do your own research into subjects that you are unsure of. A lot of anti maskers have claimed to do this research. With proper research done it is clear that masks are not only there to help you but to help other, more vulnerable, people around you.

The similarities listed above are only a few of them. The good thing is that our medicine is far more advanced than it was in 1918. We have more accessible knowledge, and the world is more connected than ever so we can see what is happening in every country. Looking back at what worked during the 1918 flu helps to stop history repeating itself. It appears in certain aspects- such as the anti-mask rhetoric- that history is doomed to repeat itself though. It does not mean we will see the same devastation that they did 100 years ago. There is more hope of getting a vaccine and saving a lot more lives. There has been a devastating loss of life with Covid-19 but hopefully, this time around, we are more equipped to handle a pandemic so that number doesn’t rise by too much more.

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Katie Boland
Katie Boland

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