Lessons from the Spanish Flu | Daily News


Lessons from the Spanish Flu

“The virus was so lethal and so scary, without any social distancing orders, people emptied the streets," says John M. Barry, the author of The Great Influenza.

Anthropologist Carolyn Orbann with the University of Missouri found data from that state suggesting that the same pandemic flu that claimed lives in 1918 may have led to deaths years later.

"For some parts of the state, it was actually 1920, the winter of 1920, when they experienced the worse number of deaths," says Orbann. "For other parts of the state, it was that 1918 October, November, December when they experienced the peak number of deaths."

Also, jump-starting the nation's economy was a difficult process to navigate and lives were lost in the process.

"There are a couple of cities that closed, opened, closed, and opened. They reimposed three times," says Barry. "We have to get started the right way. We don't want to start things up and then do what a lot of cities did in 1918 and have to reimpose the restrictions because there was an explosion of disease."

Social distancing did play a role in saving lives in 1918. In fact, many people were willing to stay away from others in part because the illness was so terrifying.

"You could bleed not only from your nose and mouth but from your eyes and ear," says Barry. "That gets people's attention. Some people turned so dark blue from lack of oxygen that in my book I quoted one doctor writing another doctor that he couldn't distinguish African American soldiers from white soldiers because they both looked so-- their pallor was so similar. That of course spread rumors of the black plague of the middle ages. So it turned out to be pretty easy to get people to social distance back then."

What could change forever after the COVID-19 pandemic?

The world has been reminded of what it's like to try and contain and manage a deadly infectious disease. It could be more prepared to do so in the future if needed.

"I think now we have a mental model of what to do in a pandemic as a community," says Orbann.

That means wearing masks and social distancing could last for some time. Another phenomenon has emerged as well.

Whether you choose to wear a mask and practice social distancing makes others aware of what social group you may identify with.

"These things have become a symbol of group membership,"says Orbann. "So if you're for example wearing a mask, you're signaling something about who you are, and what you value in accordance with other people who value the same things. And therefore if you're not wearing a mask or you're purposely displaying not wearing a mask, you're signaling your values as part of a different idea group." The pandemic also sheds light on whether life will ever go back to "normal."

"Back in 1918, 1919, 1920, people were celebrating again after the pandemic subsided," says Orbann.

While future celebrations may be more cautious, if history has anything to say about them, they will happen again.

"Humans have kind of an amazing amount of mental resiliency," says Orbann. "But I think that we will be somewhat more watchful." (Kake)

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