What We Forgot About History's Deadliest Pandemic

We've been here before: Finding parallels between Spanish Flu and COVID-19.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

When it comes to COVID-19 cases and deaths, the U.S. tops the global charts—with more than four million reported cases and more than 140,000 confirmed casualties. With the Trump administration offering no unified federal response or guidance to control the pandemic, state and local officials have been given the often impossible task of not only keeping their communities safe, but also managing overloaded healthcare systems and reviving their economy.

Depending on the person or party in charge, these policies range from doing nothing at all and branding the virus a “hoax” to (sometimes reluctantly) requiring wearing masks in public and enforcing social distancing measures, as well as instituting lockdowns to help prevent disease spread. 

Exacerbating matters, however, is the president himself, who has at times downplayed the threat of the virus as well as both undermined and defied safety recommendations from his own disease experts—refusing to wear a mask until just recently.

In fact, the president’s behavior may be one reason why about 20 percent of people are opposed to wearing a mask or socially distancing.

Despite the rising number of cases and death toll from coronavirus, this anti-mask minority (along with some of their elected officials) have held rallies in numerous states including Utah, Arizona, Ohio, and Indiana, citing spurious defenses, such as claiming masks infringe upon their constitutional rights or touting dangerous conspiracy theories, like masks cause their own health problems

It feels like we’re in uncharted territory: a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of people, with no cure in sight. Elected leaders who spread misinformation and naysayers who refuse to follow practical safety measures, all of which are contributing to increased transmissions. 

But we’re not. We’ve been here before. 

Déjà Flu: The Eerie Parallels of 1918 and 2020

More than a century ago, the deadliest pandemic in history killed an estimated 50 million people globally, among them 675,000 Americans

In some ways, the Spanish Flu (H1N1 influenza) and COVID-19 were very much alike. Both were deadly and contagious respiratory illnesses transmitted via respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces, shared similar symptoms, and most importantly, both quickly ravaged the world without a cure or vaccine. 

What stands out more than these similarities, however, were the reactions from some government officials, media, and individuals—many of which eerily reflect the country's current bungled pandemic response.

  • Despite a 40 percent mortality rate at a local hospital, a health official downplays a deadly disease, saying, “Worry kills more people than the epidemic.”
  • In the middle of the pandemic, a major city hosts a parade that hundreds of thousands of people attend, exposing thousands to the virus. Within three days, every single bed in every local hospital is filled.
  • One newspaper story falsely claims infection cases were decreasing, when in reality, the death toll was steadily climbing.

It’s no coincidence that these stories from a hundred years ago are echoing the headlines of today. Because in many ways, we are reliving the past. 

Like today, a lack of coordinated federal response and vaccine meant that state and local governments then were also largely left to devise their own plans to protect their communities from the flu.

Possibly mirroring the Trump loyalists of today, some leaders felt compelled to downplay the seriousness of the disease, which resulted in making tragic policy decisions, such as easing safety precautions too soon. (Although back in 1918, officials misled the public in an effort to keep morale high during World War I.)

What's more, preoccupation with the war was the primary reason President Woodrow Wilson never spoke of the virus publicly and refused to give any aid to states. Today’s president has appeared to follow a similar pandemic playbook, adding new chapters in misinformation, racism, and blame. 

In solidarity with President Wilson, major newspapers at the time also printed wildly misleading stories, downplaying the severity of the virus—perhaps, forming a blueprint for how Fox News delivers its information.

Yet, the most striking similarity between the two pandemics is their common solution. Absent a flu vaccine, studies at the time found “the key to flattening the curve was social distancing.” An analysis of death rates in U.S. cities showed that fatalities were 50 percent lower in cities which implemented prevention measures, such as mandatory lockdowns, quarantines, mask-wearing, and social distancing rules early on, compared to those that introduced them too late or not at all. 

A century later, comprehensive studies and infectious disease experts have come to the same conclusion for COVID-19. 

Despite these findings, just as today, there were those who ignored or defied public health concerns. It seems that even anti-maskers have been around for the ages. Back in 1919, the Anti-Mask League, a group of about 4,000 people, held a rally in San Francisco to protest a mask mandate the city had implemented to curb flu spread. Mirroring today's proclamations, the league complained about constitutional rights violations and claimed that masks wouldn’t protect them from the virus. In this case, the latter was actually true, since gauze masks, which were the norm then, didn’t do much to protect against virus particles. Still, at the time, masks were seen as a symbol of responsibility and patriotism, which the group apparently eschewed.

While the two pandemics have cultivated similar social behaviors, these parallels still don't reveal how this current pandemic one will end. In the case of the Spanish Flu, it was only after three waves over a two-year period that the flu had run its course, either killing millions of vulnerable people or sparing those that were immune. A flu vaccine wouldn't be developed until decades later in the 1940s. Hopefully, COVID-19 experiences a better fate.

Still, this tale of two pandemics does surface one important psychology lesson: We may be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Which means, the next time a pandemic comes around, we’ll likely be feeling a bit of déjà vu.