Understanding the 1918 Spanish flu can help us better grasp our current situation. Here is what we can learn from one of history’s deadliest pandemics.
It’s hard to imagine what life will look like once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. And while humanity is resilient, there will no doubt be a lingering feeling of “life before” and “life after” the pandemic for years to come. But this is not the worst health crisis that the world has had to endure.
Many scientists look to the 1918 Spanish flu to better understand how a global pandemic can pan out. The 1918 influenza was much more devastating than the Coronavirus pandemic, with a death toll between 50 million and 100 million, making it the second most deadly outbreak, after the Bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death of 1347.
So, has humanity learned from the past and what lessons can we take from the Spanish flu?
Social distancing and quarantine
Social distancing and quarantine are not new concepts. The first quarantine was passed on 27 July 1377 during the Bubonic plague and later played a huge role in the response to the 1918 outbreak. The cities and countries that closed quicker and stayed closed for longer had a much lower death toll compared to those that didn’t take quarantine and social distancing too seriously, according to an LA Times documentary.
The same can be observed in 2020 and 2021: countries that adopted more drastic measures against the spread of Covid-19, like closing borders, schools, social gatherings and events, and imposing strict quarantine rules, have had lower infection rates. With hindsight, quarantine is a successful tool that needs to be implemented with all transmissible diseases, no matter how non-threatening they seem.
Following the Covid-19 pandemic, health organisations have been advising the public on how to best protect themselves and take care of their hygiene.
Personal protective equipment
The adoption of safety precautions like wearing protective masks or coughing into handkerchiefs to help manage the 1918 flu didn’t last very long over the following decade. People quickly abandoned those practices but it did change how institutions and people reacted to later outbreaks. Wearing personal protective equipment was one of the first measures imposed in early 2020, along with social distancing.
Will we learn this time? According to CNN, specialists believe that masks will become a staple in the fight against viruses or bacteria. But will that be enough? Perhaps wearing a mask in crowded areas and while travelling should become a standard for the future, especially during flu season.
After the Spanish flu many governments embraced the idea of public healthcare, which was non-existent until that point. But even with centralised public health systems in place in 2020, one fact holds true both now and back in 1918 – pandemics hit hardest in less developed countries, densely populated areas and poverty-stricken communities.
If anything, Covid-19 has shown us that we need to be prepared for a global health crisis at all times. That is why testing should be made even more available, as well as vaccines and general healthcare.
The 1918 Spanish flu shone a light on the need for change in many areas. How well we learn from the past is yet to be seen.