COVID-19 has upended our communities, nation and world. Everyone has been forced to adapt; previous work, home, free time and social schedules have been obliterated.
As I walked past my husband, Maury’s, bookcase, the one with his virology books, one title jumped out at me: “The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It,” by Gina Kolata. I can’t imagine choosing this topic under ordinary times, but this book has important messages for those of us living through COVID-19.
The author, a science writer for the New York Times, published this book in 1999, ironically the time when the world’s great worry was potential computer failures as the millennium arrived. The synopsis on this book’s dust jacket read, “Flu addresses the prospects for a great epidemic recurring and considers what can be done to prevent it.” Here are some takeaways from this book and other pandemic data.
First, there have been and always will be pandemics caused by novel infectious agents. Prepare for them. All pandemics, including the 412 B.C. Plague of Athens, the 14th century “Black Death” and others caused far-reaching work and lifestyle changes.
Second, scientists have made great advances in understanding causes of diseases. The 1854 cholera epidemic in London ended when scientists discovered bacteria in well water. This led to the public hygiene movement that encouraged clean drinking water, hand washing, quarantining the sick and giving babies milk, not beer.
Third, as many sources have noted, when an epidemic’s cause is not easily discernible, ethnic, religious or outlier groups are often blamed.
Fourth, as advanced as we humans are, we’re no match for mother nature. In the early 20th century, Americans were confident that pandemics had ended. The Ladies Home Journal wrote, “The parlor, where the dead had been laid out for viewing, now was to be called the ‘living room’ a room for living not the dead.” And then the 1918-19 flu pandemic struck.
Fifth, we have short memories for unpleasant events. After the 1918-19 flu ended, there was little discussion about it. Between the horrors of World War I and the flu deaths, people chose to look ahead. The flu seemed to almost disappear during the summer (what everyone is hoping for in 2020) but came back with a vengeance at the end of August (what we’re all afraid of). It quickly spread across the globe even before cruise ships and jet planes were plentiful.
Today, only my generation has a vivid memory of the 1957-58 “Asian” flu. Kolata notes that the world dodged a flu bullet when the 1997 flu virus was discovered in chickens in Hong Kong; authorities there immediately killed all chickens.
Sixth, masks are useful in pandemics but bring conflict. In the 1918-19 pandemic, refusal to wear masks resulted in an anti-mask league in San Francisco and court cases in Oregon and Washington State. A minor league baseball team played wearing masks.
Finally, public health/science vs. government/power brokers view potential pandemics differently. Scientists plan for future outbreaks even when none are apparent; governments prefer to make people feel secure and use funding for current problems.
COVID-19 is not a flu, but these flu messages are still valid for today’s pandemic. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from them.