Last Wednesday, the World Health Organization labeled the novel coronavirus as a pandemic after it became evident that is spreading fast and freely across the globe.
But history suggests we are no stranger to these kinds of crises. There were global disease outbreaks in the past that somehow taught people about handling these kinds of situations, and whether we’re observing those lessons today or not is a different story.
Graham Mooney, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins said in a statement:
“There are many examples where the lessons of the past are ignored.”
One example that he gave is that governments often failed to anticipate and support citizens through the social and economic impacts of pandemics, from mandatory quarantines and travel restrictions to closing schools, workplaces, and local businesses.
“These crises expose social inequality,”
In an interview with news outlets, some of the world’s leading medical doctors and infectious disease experts looked back at the worst flu outbreaks.
Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection & Immunity at Columbia University said:
“The famous Spanish flu of 1918 was an influenza virus.”
“The introduction of a new virus that had not previously been seen by much of the world’s population. And whenever a new virus enters the world’s population and there’s no preexisting immunity to it, it can take off like wildfire.”
In the midst of the horrors of World War I, the deadly virus infected soldiers living in close contact with each other in military camps, transport ships and the like. Days after, the virus was spreading around the globe.
Despite its name, the Spanish flu did not come from Spain. The Spanish media was the first to report about this new flu-like illness and the label just stuck.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the John Hopkins University Center for Health Security said:
“It was a virus that was likely derived mostly from an avian species, meaning it came from birds and jumped directly into humans.”
“And when it went into humans, it had a very high mortality rate. And that mortality was not necessarily always due to the flu itself. It was actually due to a lot of secondary bacterial infections that we had.”
“It killed about 1 to 2 percent of the individuals that were infected, but because it was so contagious, 50 to 100 million people died around the world. And it was kind of cataclysmic. It’s something that we really worry about happening with other pandemic viruses.”
COVID-19 is another virus that, like the Spanish flu, is foreign to the human immune system.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show” and an attending physician at the New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center explained:
“The coronavirus … somehow merged with a human virus or some other small mammalian virus and they had a baby and the baby has a little bit of both.”
“We don’t recognize that at all. It’s a completely different ballgame. And for that reason, it’s really difficult for us to cope with it.”
Dr. Oz emphasized:
“One of the best lessons of the impact of social separation and distancing happened in the 1918 Spanish flu influenza.”
Doctors and city officials in Philadelphia were the ones who were first to identify the spread of Spanish flu but failed to act against it in any meaningful way.
Dr. Oz went on to tell a story:
“They allowed a big parade.”
“It happened with 200,000 people that fall. And you saw the death rates skyrocket within several weeks in Philadelphia.”
On the other hand, city officials in St. Louis performed a different approach when the Spanish flu began to spread, and they saw a huge improvement in the results.
“In St. Louis, as soon as the first patient was identified within two days, they banned everything — all social gatherings.”
“Despite the aggressive and frustrating experience, they saved a lot of lives because the mortality rate in Philadelphia was dramatically higher than that in St. Louis. That’s an important lesson for all of us to remember. We could impact dramatically the course of the illness ourselves.”