The year is 1918. You are standing in New York, one of the if not THE busiest cities in the world. The city is always bustling with trade, conversation and most of all people – ‘the city that never sleeps’. Yet, at that point in time, the streets are mostly empty. Everyone keeps a wary distance, and the streets are filled with signs, like this one.
How did we get here? What caused this situation?
The answer is the 1918 influenza pandemic, caused by the H1N1 virus. The pandemic is more commonly known as ‘The Spanish Flu’.
The Spanish Flu was unlike any other pandemic in modern history. It was highly contagious, had a staggering mortality rate, but was still largely unreported for a long time. This is because the flu broke out during the last few months of World War I. Governments of both sides knew they had to keep morale up, so they heavily censored the media and suppressed reports.
Newspapers were however, allowed to report cases that emerged in Spain, since it was neutral. The name Spanish Flu thus emerged. But, the flu probably emerged in the heart of the United States, New York itself.
I am writing this in April 2020. India is currently in a lockdown to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The case of the Spanish Flu was recently brought to my mind when I read about a 108-year-old woman who survived the Spanish Flu but died due to the coronavirus. What can we learn from historical pandemics?
The 1918 H1N1 outbreak infected about 500 million people – around a quarter of the world’s population at the time and ended up killing anywhere from 20 to 50 million. Some estimates even suggest 100. It killed around 3% of the world’s population.
It was largely spread due to crowded war camps and poor hygienic conditions in them. Several war veterans returned home carrying not just medals, but the disease as well.
Another reason why both the Spanish Flu and the coronavirus are so deadly is because they are both ‘novel’ or new, meaning that most people have no immunity whatsoever to the disease and that there is no vaccination available.
But, as deadly as the Spanish Flu was, it is nowhere close to the 14th-century bubonic plague outbreak, commonly called the Black Death.
It was so named because infected people would develop boils near their lymph nodes, which would burst into a dark mixture of blood, pus and bacteria.
The plague was so deadly that it wiped out 60% of Europe’s population at the time. People experienced a myriad of symptoms including fever, pain, chills, diarrhea and sweats.
Most people wouldn’t even show symptoms for a long time so identifying the disease was a near-impossible task. The repercussions of the Black Plague were so severe, that they were felt for centuries after. In fact, the nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ is actually about how everyone succumbed to the plague and were cremated as a result.
However, this level of death is not the lesson to be learnt here.
Anne Rasmussen, a historian at the EHESS university in Paris, says, “Things are completely different today. One has to be very careful to avoid using comparisons that create more fear than illumination.”
Nutrition, hygiene, healthcare services, and awareness are much higher than ever before. The lesson we can learn from these pandemics is how they eventually ended.
Quarantine and social distancing.
Infected and healthy people were kept away from one another. This eventually ‘flattens the curve’, which essentially means that it reduces the number of infected people.
Concepts like these are obviously nothing new. And, they work. Right now, we need such solutions that work. In the time it takes to wait for a proper vaccine, how many millions will die if we do nothing? Please stay at home and keep safe. It is difficult for all of us, but in the long run, it saves millions of lives.
And social distancing is already working. Several major cities in the US such as San Francisco and Seattle have already ‘flattened the curve’. Many other countries have a long way towards this goal as well.
At the end of the day, sheer human willpower can work wonders. The very fact that previous pandemics have ended proves that this too shall pass. With help from all of us, of course!