Growing up, my father would often entertain us with stories and insights from the book he was currently reading. This fostered my own love of reading at an early age. Given the current increase in Coronavirus cases we’ve seen locally, I recently revisited one of my father’s recommendations from years ago, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry.

The Great Influenza offers a thorough analysis of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and details the fascinating evolution from heroic medicine to modern science-based practices. The book provides a foundational understanding of how viruses’ function and change or mutate through antigen shift or antigen drift. These mutations can make a deadly virus less so, or a mild virus more lethal. Despite being published over 15 years ago, a type of virus, coronavirus, is mentioned in the book. As I write this, I can hear my father’s voice reviewing parts of the book that I only recently completed. Clearly, I should have taken his advice and read this book years ago when he first recommended it.

Given the continued spread of Coronavirus and the increased number of active cases, I wanted to better understand the 1918 pandemic. I also want to share portions of that true story that I found helpful in gaining a better understanding of how we faced a pandemic over a century ago. The account of that outbreak is as compelling as it is a gruesome tale — a dark time in our Nation’s history.

The 1918 flu, similar to other pandemics that have occurred in 1889, 1957, 1968, and 2009, came in waves. The first wave in the Spring of 1918 was less deadly than the Fall of 1918. The likely origin of the 1918 flu was Haskell County Kansas. Throughout 1918, the health care system was first strained and then pushed to its breaking point or outright collapse as cases soared. It’s interesting to note that social distancing practices were employed back then to help temper the outbreak. Schools were closed, large gatherings were canceled. Entire towns shut down completely. Those who chose to social distance fared better, while cities like Philadelphia that held a huge parade to promote the purchase of war bonds suffered unimaginably. Eventually, the virus spread all over the world even to very remote places. In the buildup to World War I, the press was suppressed and news of illness was dismissed or downplayed. Life and movement sped up to prepare for the war effort at a time when social distancing could have helped slow the impact of the virus. Matters were not helped as thousands of American soldiers were crowded onto transport ships during World War I, becoming ill or dying from the virus during or soon after their Atlantic voyage.

If you’d like to learn more, but don’t have time to read the book, I highly suggest watching American Experience on PBS. Season 10, Episode 5: Influenza 1918.

As we continue to navigate these uncertain times, I find hope and comfort in studying the past. The unknown is our greatest fear, perhaps because our imagination is left to fill in the voids of our knowledge. Although life today is quite different than it was a century ago, reflecting on history can provide us tools to identify patterns, gain perspective, and better solve the challenges of today.

I also find solace in the many modern advantages that we have in 2020 to fight a pandemic:

  1. We have a much better understanding of viruses today.
  2. We’ve seen advancements in anti-viral drugs like Oseltamivir, Zanamivir, and Remdesivir. This class of drugs offers the promise of inhibiting the development of a virus.
  3. We don’t have the massive global assembly and movement of troops seen during World War I which significantly worsened the spread of the 1918 flu. Social distancing was not as feasible during wartime and the talent and focus of our medical system was on the war effort and not the pandemic.
  4. We survived. As terrible as the 1918 flu pandemic was, we survived and went on to see another century of progress as a civilization.

Just like in 1918, we can’t isolate ourselves away from the virus, only a few islands and remote communities successfully accomplished this a century ago and replicating that level of extreme quarantine would be virtually impossible today. We must layer several interventions to promote social distancing to reduce the threat of a significant local outbreak to avoid straining our health care system. If we all re-commit ourselves to slowing the spread, each of us can play a role in slowing this pandemic and saving lives. When we leave home, let’s wear a mask. Let’s establish consistent routines to wash our hands and disinfect anything we’ve brought with us or anything we’ve touched when we leave home. Let’s resolve to stay home if we’re feeling sick and avoid large crowds.
We can all play a role in fighting COVID-19. Remember that we are writing the history of today, the story of our time and what we did. Let’s do our best to write a story about a community that came together, that cared about one another, that protected one another, that kept moving forward in the face of fear.

One thought on “Lessons from the Past for a Modern Pandemic

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