Lessons From The 1918 Spanish Flu


Lessons From The 1918 Spanish Flu

Shilpa Roy | May 28, 2020 15:40 hrs

Despite science and technology having developed by leaps and bound, 2020 is looking more like 1918. We are again socially distanced and face-masked. The Spanish Flu ravaged the world like wildfire, killing more than 50 million people globally. Today, as the world has come to a standstill due to the novel corona virus, we should turn the pages of history to study the influenza pandemic 1918 for clues and lessons. In September 1918, Philadelphia detected its first case of a deadly influenza. They did take steps to contain the virus by campaigning against coughing, spitting and sneezing, but very surprisingly 10 days later, the city hosted a parade that was attended by 200,000 people. From its first detected case at a Kansas military base in March 1918, the flu spread across the country. The flu cases continued to rise until schools, colleges, churches, theatres and places of public gathering were shut down. 


In 1918, the studies found that the key to flattening the curve of infection was social distancing. And that remains true even a century later, in the battle against corona virus. After implementing strict social distancing rules and control of public gatherings St. Louis, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Kansas City showed better results by cutting transmission rates by 30 to 50 percent. New York City reacted earlier to the crisis with mandatory quarantine rules and thus experienced the lowest death rate on the eastern coast. 

The novel corona virus is also spreading with shocking speed. At present, there are 87,350 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India and a total death of 2,771 persons (Figures are of the time when this article was being written). During the Spanish Flu pandemic social distancing was given up way too early leading to a second wave of infections that was deadlier than the first. Although schools, colleges, religious institutions, theatres, restaurants are shut and social gatherings are restricted during the corona virus outbreak but examples are not wanting on how people defy social distancing norms as if they are immune to the virus. For instance, the protests in US against lockdown and insistence on reopening the states, the large gathering on Peel Street, Hong Kong after bars were opened for the first time, the gathering of huge crowds outside liquor shops in India are worth mentioning. Undoubtedly there have been major scientific advancements in the past 102 years, but COVID-19 and Spanish Flu share two major similarities, i.e. the lack of vaccine. There is a lot of speculation going on around Hydroxychloroquine - a drug used to treat malaria - but there is no study yet which proves that this particular drug is a cure for corona virus. There was another reason that made the 1918 flu more deadly. The outbreak started during World War I, when many soldiers were in barracks and in close proximity with each other. Although there’s no World War now but the important lesson that remain is that young, healthy people are not immune to the virus.

So, as history repeated, the lesson we can learn from the great influenza pandemic to flatten the curve until a vaccine is discovered, is social distancing. It saved many lives in 1918, and it will save even in 2020. The 1918 flu proved that cities that ordered social distancing measures sooner and for longer periods usually slowed infections and lowered overall death rates. The demographic rates have shifted dramatically in this span of 100 years and it thus made containing a virus difficult. The only cure against a pandemic in the absence of a vaccine is strict “stay at home” rules although getting citizens to comply with such orders is another story. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association and another two studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that death rates during influenza pandemic, 1918 were around 50 percent lower in cities that implemented preventive measures early on. Thus the lessons of 1918, if well heeded will surely help us to combat the pandemic situation. It is said that storms don’t last forever; therefore together we can withstand the storm of corona virus and see the sun rising again. All adversities come to an end and this too shall pass.

(The author is a lawyer and an amateur writer. The views expressed are her own.)

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