What can we learn from history about the pace and path of a pandemic?

Pandemics from the past

What can we learn from the past about what we are facing and may face with COVID-19? An increasingly good comparison is the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic (see — 100 years later, we are even more vulnerable to an influenza pandemic).

Based on that comparison, we could see a scenario like this —

“As America enters this utterly unfamiliar territory, some experts have turned to history for glimpses of what to expect in the months ahead.

Initially leery of alarming the public, they have increasingly compared this pandemic to the 1918 flu pandemic, the deadliest in modern history. It infected roughly a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people, including at least 675,000 in the United States.

Like the bumpy hills some foresee in coming months (see graphic), the 1918 pandemic hit America in three waves — a mild one that spring, the deadliest wave in fall and a final one that winter.

With each wave came a cycle of denial, devastation, community response finally kicking into overdrive — followed by finger-pointing and blame among leaders and the public.

‘Every outbreak is different,’ said medical anthropologist Monica Schoch-Spana, who spent months digging through archives to study how 1918 flu played out in Baltimore.

Like the coronavirus is likely to do, the 1918 flu overwhelmed hospitals. Unable to get help, desperate families waited outside to beg and try to bribe doctors for treatment. In a three-week period, 2,000 died in Baltimore alone. Mortuaries ran out of caskets. When the bodies finally reached cemeteries, the gravediggers were so ill, there was no one to bury the dead. Economic pressure on business owners and workers caused the public to resist adopting restrictions.

The crisis brought out the best in Baltimoreans — with sewing circles churning out gauze masks and hospital bedding, and neighbors donating food and services. But it also brought out the worst — xenophobic conspiracy theories that nurses of “German extraction” were deliberately infecting people. African American patients were kept out of most hospitals under Jim Crow-era segregation.

‘Pandemics aren’t just physical,’ said Schoch-Spana. ‘They bring with them an almost shadow pandemic of psychological and societal injuries as well.’”

Go to the source —

William Wan, Joel Achenbach, Carolyn Y. Johnson, and Ben Guarino. Coronavirus will radically alter the U.S.: Here’s what may lie ahead based on math models, hospital projections and past pandemics. The Washington Post, March 19, 2020.

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu)

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