When we finally reach that point where we can look back with some distance and remind ourselves of what this pandemic was like, what will we think? More importantly, what will we be able to say we have learned about ourselves from this horrible human catastrophe?
There are already clues to the answer to this question in what Noam Shpancer, a professor of psychology at the Otterbein College, calls the “characteristics of our internal architecture.” Writing in March in Psychology Today, he points out that, from a psychological perspective, the current crisis may serve to illuminate some fundamental and often contradictory characteristics of our nature. For one, “We have a short-term mind, but a long-term life,” he writes. When considering what the coronavirus might reveal about us as we look to our present and wonder about our future, maybe a sober look at our past is in order.
American historian and philosopher Will Durant once wrote that the story of man “runs in a dreary circle,” meaning that history has a way of repeating itself. When scientists project how various approaches might impact the trajectory of this novel coronavirus, they will often draw comparisons to another pandemic that happened over a century ago.
As recorded by the History channel and others, the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 was the deadliest flu outbreak in recorded time and is said to have claimed the lives of 50 million people worldwide. While the 1918 flu and COVID-19 are different diseases, from a behavioral standpoint, there are striking similarities. The 1918 event is consistently used as a reference point. Both outbreaks occurred without a vaccine to treat them, and the medical community was unprepared for what would follow in both outbreaks.
As noted by a recent article in Time magazine, while medicine has advanced and access to information has increased significantly since 1918, there are parallels in the messaging and advice given to the public.
People already knew of the highly contagious nature of the flu — enough to know they should stay away from one another. Without a cure or a go-to treatment, the focus shifted to “personal hygiene, quarantines and limiting public gatherings,” writes Suyin Haynes.
“Local governments rolled out initiatives to try to stop its spread,” writes Becky Little of the History channel. “These varied by region, and included closing schools and places of public amusement, enforcing ‘no-spitting’ ordinances, encouraging people to use handkerchiefs or disposable tissues and requiring people to wear masks in public. … Mask-wearing ordinances mainly popped up in the western states, and it appears most people complied with them.” At the time of the outbreak, America was still fighting in World War I. The fact that officials framed anti-flu measures to protect the troops from the deadly outbreak certainly had to influence compliance.
Though compliance was initially high, some complained that the masks were uncomfortable, ineffective or bad for business. Prominent government officials were photographed in public without masks, heightening the controversy. Once the war ended, many felt there was no longer a need to wear masks to keep the troops safe. “Some dissenters even formed an ‘Anti-Mask League’ in San Francisco,” Little writes.
“It’s still difficult to say how effective mask-wearing on its own was in 1918 and 1919,” writes Little. “What is clear is that communities that implemented stronger health measures overall fared better than those that didn’t.”
“Communities that did enforce much stricter regulations and for a longer period of time and began earlier had lower death rates,” Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound and author of “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” tells the History channel.
“Guardrails are weakened when we deny science, when we ignore sound medical advice for short-term political considerations,” Kenneth C. Davis, author of “More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War,” tells PBS NewsHour back in November 2018. “Those things all factored into the spread of the Spanish flu 100 years ago, and those are things that could happen again today.”
Last week, I mentioned a woman from more than a century ago, Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.” Though she never showed symptoms of typhoid fever — and there was no precedent at the time for a healthy person carrying it — she was ultimately traced to a total of nearly 50 typhoid cases and three deaths.
I could have just as easily told a story reported in June of an asymptomatic man who, following a birthday party, reportedly infected 17 members of his family with the coronavirus. Like Mary, this unfortunate man is a “superspreader.”
As reported by Yahoo and other outlets, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers might be contributing to half of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
The report goes on to say that these cases are being contracted from “silent spreaders” (asymptomatic carriers or presymptomatic carriers). The study further shows the virus as most contagious in the presymptomatic phase. If these findings hold, even if all symptomatic patients are isolated, “a vast outbreak may nonetheless unfold.”
What are the things in our control that we can do to protect ourselves? They are things that have been known to us for more than a century: taking physical (social) distancing seriously; washing your hands frequently; covering your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others; cleaning and disinfecting regularly. Think of them as “an ounce of prevention” with the absence of a cure.