Coronavirus: A Repeat of the 1918 Spanish Flu?
It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to predict that the novel coronavirus outbreak that we are currently in the midst of will have lasting changes on society as a whole. Kids are home from school, college students are finishing their courses online and attending lectures via Zoom, parents are either working remotely, have been furloughed, or are out of work completely. Those who work in the gig economy have been hit particularly hard.
It’s going to be quite some time before things can go back to normal, and even then, the new normal may be different from what we’re used to. For now, though there are plenty of engagements, there are no weddings. Though bands doing a ton of amazing livestreams, we don’t know when concerts will resume again. If you’re fortunate enough to have a boat, unless you’re only setting sail with the people you live with, your boat is probably in boat. Things are not looking good for all the summer festivals we were looking forward to.
In some businesses, it has been possible to adapt to operation during the coronavirus outbreak. The roofing business makes for a perfect example. If a roofing company is able to complete roof repairs while keeping proper distance from the client, they can continue to operate during various levels of lockdown. So long as they can implement practices that comply with the guidelines the CDC provides, such businesses are able to minimize the effects of the pandemic on their operations.
Other businesses are not so lucky. Most dentists and orthodontists have had to cancel all appointments that don’t involve urgent procedures. Elective procedures and cleanings have generally had to be put on hold to help flatten the curve of coronavirus infections. However, that doesn’t mean that these businesses are closed. If you have an urgent issue that needs immediate attention — an infection or abcess that requires a root canal, for example — you can visit your local dentist or orthodontist for that procedure.
Already the world has changed in many ways that are not easily reversible. In the U.S., as in much of the rest of the world, we have had to intentionally freeze our economy, crippling many of its sectors. While a number of businesses have been deemed essential, most have not. And though some locales with encouraging downward trends in their number of cases are getting to slowly reopen these non-essential industries, many cities are still in full shutdown mode.
Today we will look into how this crisis compares to the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, and then we will look ahead to consider what some of the long-term consequences of the global pandemic will be.
How Did This Happen?
Pandemics are not a brand new phenomenon. One has only to look back a century to the 1918 H1N1 virus, better known as the Spanish Flu, to find an example. In fact, the Spanish Flu outbreak has been repeatedly invoked to act as a comparison to our current crisis. Many are using the event as both a cautionary tale as well as a guide for responses which were executed well.
Indeed, there are many parallels which we can draw between these two events. They both had an impact on a global scale. The coronavirus outbreak is shutting down economies, while the Spanish Flu weakened forces on both sides of World War I as it spread vigorously throughout the trenches as well as the civilian population.
Fortunately, there are a great many differences as well. The Spanish Flu made its way through a very different world than this 21st environment that is being hit by the novel coronavirus outbreak. In an article on the matter, the explanatory news and media network Vox breaks down the main differences come dow which affected how the Spanish Flu was dealt with. These factors include:
Rampant misinformation and poor communication
The world in 1918, while highly connected, obviously did not have the same array of instantaneous modes of communication which we enjoy today. Many countries were closely connected and had many lines of communication, but the available technology was much more limited. Yet this was not even the reason that the spread of information regarding the flu outbreak of 1918 was so limited. The cause, rather, is a political one.
The Spanish Flu is impossible to understand without bearing in mind the influence of World War I. It was in the best interest of most of the countries involved to limit the leakage of information beyond their borders. Thus, even countries that were being ravaged by the flu outbreak — Britain, for example — gave no indication to the outside world that this was the case.
This meant that when Spain, a neutral country during the war, was hit by the virus, they were under the false impression that they were alone in dealing with an outbreak. This is why the H1N1 influenza strain from that year is still referred to as the Spanish Flu, despite the fact that it did not actually originate in Spain.
As you can imagine, this lack of communication and coordination made it far more difficult to combat the virus, adding to its heavy toll.
Extremely limited knowledge of viruses
These days, we take for granted our understanding of viruses — how they work, and how to prevent and combat them. We have developed flu vaccines that, while not achieving a 100% success rate, help to greatly reduce the number of cases we get each season. according to the CDC, this rate of effectiveness has oscillated from as low as 19% to as high as 60% over the last 10 years. The reason this number is so variable is that infectious disease experts have to guess which strains will be prevalent in each coming flu season.
In 1918, many of the key scientific advances that have allowed us to combat infections so effectively were not yet available. Antibiotics would not be discovered and utilized for another decade. While antibiotics treat bacterial rather than viral infections, this would have been immensely helpful toward reducing the Spanish Flu’s severe mortality rate. This is due to the fact that many of the deaths from the strain were caused by the cases of pneumonia which often accompanied an infection.
This element in particular resonates with our current crisis. The most dangerous component of COVID-19 is its impact on our respiratory system. The cases of pneumonia which tend to develop are the reason for the current pandemic’s high mortality rate, and is the reason why ventilators are an essential piece of equipment now in quite insufficient supply. Fortunately, modern medicine is far more capable of treating these infections than hospitals in 1918.
Absence of antiviral drugs
While antibiotics were unfortunately yet to be discovered in 1918, antiviral drugs were even farther away. The first antiviral drug, idoxuridine, was not created and approved until 1963, nearly half a century after the world was ravaged by the Spanish Flu. Since then, 90 antiviral drugs have been developed and approved for the treatment of 9 different infectious diseases as of 2016. These diseases include hepatitis B and hepatitis C, herpes, influenza, and HIV, as well as several others.
Right now, we are all waiting for a vaccine to be developed for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that is wreaking havoc across the globe. As anticipation and desperation for this vaccine build, another of the likely changes from the coronavirus outbreak emerges: an increased focus on antiviral drugs. Moving forward, the importance of research on this front is not likely to be underestimated again, and the odds are good that funding for antiviral research will be more plentiful.
No global health authority
While divisive partisan politics have resulted in some misguided criticism being directed toward the World Health Organization, the reality is that such coalitions are essential. Having a World Health Organization allows us to track outbreaks on a global scale and devise a unified approach toward containment measures. In 1918, there was no such organization.
The closest thing we had were the 14 International Sanitary Conferences which took place periodically from 1851 to 1938, each with varying levels of success. The World Health Organization’s predecessor, the Health Organization of the League of Nations, operated from 1920 until the formation of the United Nations. The UN consolidated all existing health organizations into the World Health Organization that we have today.
As you can see, there are a great many number of ways in which we’re much better-prepared for a pandemic. However, our world is also connected to a much greater extent than it was 100 years ago.
Small Businesses: Another Coronavirus Casualty
It is well-known that small businesses are bearing much of the brunt of this necessary period of economic slowdown. For essential businesses such as supermarkets, the coronavirus outbreak has primarily meant extra difficulties keeping certain items stocked. For example, toilet paper and disinfectant, as well as non-perishables, have been in particularly high demand and are thus in short supply.
Supermarkets and other stores operating through the coronavirus outbreak are generally still great companies to work for as they have implemented new procedures to keep employees and customers as safe as possible. Reduced operating hours, mandatory masks, increased disinfecting of surfaces, and a more spacious layout to encourage customers to maintain a safe level of distance from one another are just some of these changes.
Many supermarkets also offer an hour or so during which only elderly customers can enter the store. This helps to protect this part of the population that is particularly vulnerable to the virus. This is perfect for assisted living centers that have residents who would like to shop. While the best option is for these individuals to stay home, having a special time to shop with a reduced risk is very useful.
Even businesses that are still open and selling non-essential items — online retail, for example — are suffering the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Consumer confidence is at a record low In early April, Channel 4 reported that economic output in the UK had dipped by a factor of 1/3, losing over 2 billion pounds a day. With tens of millions of people unemployed, it makes sense that most families are trying to be very frugal through these times of economic uncertainty.
Still, it’s important that we continue to support local businesses in whatever ways we can. While the huge stimulus bill Congress passed provided aid to small businesses that included payroll protection, these business still need our help in order to stay afloat. Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which we can do our part to help out.
For restaurants that have remained open through the coronavirus outbreak, order takeout or delivery for your family’s dinner a couple times a week. If you would like to make an even greater impact on the business’s available cash flow, purchase a large gift card that you can use over an extended period of time. Or, purchase several smaller gift cards and give them as presents to friends and family.
Try to patronize other businesses that have remained open and could use your help as well. If you’re looking for something new to read, see if your local bookstore has an online shop. Or if your vehicle could use a wash, see if your local truck wash service is open. There are many local places we can continue to support through this difficult period.
The coronavirus outbreak is far from over. But by continuing to support each other, we can make it through this crisis. If you’re looking for a silver lining, remember this: while things have not been handled perfectly, the world is far more prepared than it was in 1918.