The 1918 Pandemic and the 2019 Pandemic

What we can learn from the two pandemics

Opinion: In 1918 a pandemic collectively known as the Spanish Flu devastated the world, much like the pandemic known as COVD-19 is doing today.  In the 1918 Pandemic, the official years are usually accepted to be 1918-1919; however, there is evidence that it lasted until late 1920.  At best, historians can say the Spanish Flu was a two-year pandemic, and at worst, they can extend it to almost three years.  The COVID-19 pandemic in our modern time is now, on a worldwide scale, at just under ten months.  If we use the Spanish Flu as a guide, then we can safely assume that we still, at minimum, have fourteen months to go, or one year two months, before we see this pandemic end.  

In reviewing the two pandemics side-by-side, it’s interesting to note some similarities between the two.  Anyone will immediately notice that the two pandemics occurred right at a hundred-year mark.   Both pandemics encompass flu-like symptoms and breathing difficulties.  Both pandemics are airborne and have traveled around the world through our transportation systems.  In 1918 the pandemic was transported by people on ships and returning from war.  In 2019 the pandemic was transported by people traveling by air.  There are several other interesting parallels between the two.  Consider the following areas which were and have been issues in both: 

  • Both had no known cure.
  • Both had issues with skewed number counts – either too high or too low in some areas.
  • Both required businesses, church groups, community groups to close by government order.
  • Both required quarantine of the infected.
  • Both resulted in deaths exceeding regular flu seasons.
  • Both resulted in recommendations of face coverings to reduce transmission.
  • Both resulted in modifications to social interactions.
  • Both resulted in fines for failure to wear face coverings (in the U.S., $50 in 1918, $500 average for 2020)

From the 1918 Pandemic, we learned that fresh air, quarantining, face coverings, and distancing from others helped.  Ironically, those same lessons learned in 1918 are now being applied in 2020.  It’s further ironic that in 1918, there were groups called “Anti-Maskers” who believed the government’s insistence that people wear masks was a form of control.  There were also those in 1918 thinking that the numbers were wrong or inflated in death counts.  Many people during that time felt that the pandemic was overinflated by the media of the time.  

When we come to the end of the day, we can see many interesting parallels between the two pandemics.  It appears there will always be those who refuse to accept face-coverings, death count numbers, infection numbers, and the severity of the crisis.  However, on the same token, there are always pushing masks, modifying numbers of deaths, and perhaps exaggerating the facts.  History will judge, but from what is known of the 1918 Pandemic, it’s difficult to say who was right.  It’s more likely that both sides – those, let’s say pushing for mask and restrictions and those going for no mask and no restrictions are both right and wrong to a certain degree.  Hopefully, future generations will look at both sides of each pandemic and draw their logical and scientific conclusions.   However, if I was betting and there is another pandemic a hundred years, I would bet that there will still be two sides to the debate just as there is now and just as there was in 1918.  

Due to modern medicine, knowledge, and technology, we are fortunate in the current pandemic in one crucial way.  The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic cost 50,000,000 lives worldwide in the two official years.  Right now, we just crossed the 1,000,000 mark worldwide.  This significant decrease in numbers is undoubtedly a clear indicator that we learned from the 1918 pandemic and advanced our medical and scientific approaches to handling this pandemic.  Unfortunately, with that said, the 1918 Pandemic saw 657,000 deaths in the United States.  Here in the land of the free, where we value our freedom not to wear a mask, and we love our rights, we have now crossed the 200,000 death mark at ten months into this pandemic.  If we stay true to that form, then by twenty months, we will reach 400,000.  Based on those numbers, to reach twenty-four months or the same two years accepted for the 1918 pandemic, we will likely get between 440,000 and 450,000 deaths in two years.  

While a projection of 450,000 is certainly 207,000 less than the 657,000 of 1918, it is still a staggering number.  Those who argue that we simply have a larger population now are correct; however, it is always disappointing to see some of the same disagreements from the 1918 pandemic directly affecting the 2019 pandemic.  Further, regardless of how you may feel or where your opinions may fall in the pandemic debate, a projection of 450,000 may seem like only a statistical number, but in truth, we must remember that is 450,000 U.S. lives.  Those potential 450,000 and already 200,000 lives were our friends, neighbors, business associates, and family members. 

When the count finally closes on this COVID-19 Pandemic, there will be very few of us not impacted by it in some way with a loss.  Regardless of debates and opinions over the mask or any other issue, a potential of 450,000 lives lost is the real tragedy of the 2019 COVID-19 Pandemic, which we will have to cope with for years to come. 

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