In this article, I would like to take a break from covering US history and forgotten places to dive into the history that is being made by the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). As much of America is on lockdown and practicing “social distancing”, our cities are looking more like the ghost towns that I typically cover. I would like to tour you through my hometown and review the history of the last time the world saw a major Pandemic. To paraphrase the Greek God Janus; “The man that looks to the past and the future is blind in one eye, but the man who looks to only the future is blind in both eyes.”
Despite popular belief, we have not seen a major pandemic in living memory. There have been major; yet localized, epidemics; such as SCARS or MERS. Both of which are more deadly than Covid-19. Not to forget, the most deadly epidemic in recent history; ebola, which killed 11,323.
To find the last Pandemic we have to go back to January 1918. When the “Spanish Flu” was first reported by the Spanish army. However; it had been circulating in the European armies for over a year before it was noted and reported in a British Army hospital in 1918. Some say it started in China and then mutated at a US military base in Kansas, where it was eventually spread to the frontline.
Regardless of how it started; it made its way around the world because at this time the world was in the throes of World War I and we had little knowledge of viruses and the diseases that they caused. Furthermore, the news of Spanish Flu was suppressed by the US, French, British, and German governments as they feared it would impact their troops' morale and show weakness. This information suppression was instrumental in spreading the disease early on. Later in 1918 the soldiers returned home and brought with them a very virulent version of the virus.
Just like Covid-19, the world population had no immunity or tolerance for the virus built up in their system. This is the key difference between the common flu and the Spanish Flu. Even to this day, the common flu kills 650,00 people worldwide. However; this is a known variable. Meaning we can account for what it will do and where it will do it. Whereas with novel-viruses we have no history to go off of and do not know what to expect.
The Spanish flu went on to become the second-largest health-crisis, second only to the bubonic plague of the middle ages. It managed to spread to every continent and infect upwards of 30% of the world population, of 1.8 billion people. Before the flu pandemic was through it had claimed over 50 million lives. This is a solemn reminder of what can happen if a pandemic gets truly out of control.
We now know the Spanish Flu was an outbreak of the H1N1 virus. A breed of virus that is common in birds and pigs; which is why it is often referred to as “bird flu” or “swine flu”. Similar to Covid-19 it jumped from one species to the next from close contact with infected animals within the food chain. Even though the Spanish Flu is an influenza virus and Covid-19 is a Coronavirus they both attack the lungs. Those who have survived the worst cases of Covid-19 are often left with scarring on their lungs and reduced lung capacity.
A report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CCDC) found the mortality rate of Covid-19 to be 2.3%. The Spanish Flu killed its hosts at a rate of 2.5%; to give a frame of reference: the common flu kills at a rate of 0.1%. Meaning the Spanish Flu was 25x more lethal and Covid-19 is 23x more lethal than the common flu.
Now, what’s most important is to not panic. We are going to be ok and better than ever. Just because the data is similar to Spanish Flu, this does not mean the outcome will be similar. The differences between 1918 medicine and today are too numerous to count. And epidemiologists have learned a lot from our past. However; it is time for us to focus our attention on the present and write history together. Let’s change how deadly Covid-19 is to the world. It starts with social distancing and better sanitation habits. And no, toilet paper hoarding is not the answer. Thank you to the medical staff, first responders, and social distance superstars. For the most up-to-date information on Covid-19 Please visit the link below:
Photos from the day:
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