By: M. Cerdeira
Currently emerged under a world crisis that no-one in the last two generations had ever witnessed in such immensity, we are forced to remember key points of history. Unfortunately, since humanity began to exist, disease outbreaks have become almost common. Pandemics have and will continue to happen in the generations that follow, especially because of the globalization that steadily increases year by year. Despite all the advances in technology that do bring great aid during worldwide crises of the sort; when there is no knowledge on how to contain a brand-new virus, the best shot we have is to self-isolate. Therefore, the influenza outbreak of 1918, 100 years ago, is not so vastly distinct to the one we are currently witnessing as one would imagine. Although the medical and technological developments made in the last century greatly differ the two pandemics, it is important to consider how similar they both are when it comes to strategies made in a time of chaos. Ergo, such leap into the past can still teach us on how to be better prepared as virus mutations, such as the Omicron variant, continue to surge.
The Influenza or H1N1 virus, having originated from avian genes, spread worldwide throughout 1918 and 1919, in a world that was deeply affected by the consequences of the first world war. At the time, around one third of the world population (500 million people), was infected. The virus resulted in many deaths of young, healthy people, between the ages of 20-40, which sets it apart from most others, including Covid-19. At the time, medicine was limited; there was no vaccine or antibiotics to deal with the pandemic, so the only interventions possible were personal isolation, social distancing, and good hygiene. The despairing pandemic lasted around two years and a half, but it never really ended. Instead, less dangerous variants of influenza surfaced, and in a short amount of time, it became much less harmful, and even today, a variation of it continues to spread. We are currently witnessing the same concept. Omicron, for instance, is a variant that is, according to studies, four times more transmissible than the former Delta variant. However, it is less severe, and since most people have been vaccinated, it has resulted in the hospitalization of fewer people, most of those being the unvaccinated, and therefore more vulnerable. This uprise of new mutations of the virus is being seen by many people as the beginning to an end of Covid; which will be followed by yearly variants, and therefore, vaccinations; just like those of H1N1.
Of course, in 1918, the flu took months to arrive at some places, through the train rather than by air, and comparatively, COVID infected the entire world much more rapidly. Some places were even able to escape the flu. Although it devastated Alaska, where “more people died per capita than anyone else in the world”, as stated by historian Ringsmuth, there was one community in Bristol Bay; Egegak that was almost untouched by the virus. The community closed everything from schools to gatherings, and is one of the few that escaped the Spanish Influenza. The dodge of the flu in certain areas is no mystery, however. The areas that were intact were those that came into a complete lockdown. No one came in or out. Although this is much more difficult to achieve in present times since the world is in constant movement and expansion, the areas which did shut down completely were those with the least Covid-19 caused deaths. We can observe this, for instance when looking at the Island of Vanuatu in Oceania, that since the start of the coronavirus outbreak has been very strict with its borders. The island has had four covid cases, and only one death among a population of 307,150.
Another similarity between the two viruses is clearly the socioeconomic groups most affected. Influenza and Covid-19 both surged in the midst of an unequal world. The influenza virus brought about mass deaths in slums, of those on the margins of society; who did not have proper sanitation or food, therefore being very susceptible to the flu, and not having any treatment whatsoever. A heartbreaking case was that of Indigenous communities in the U.S. Many Indigenous groups were pushed into more isolated areas in the 20th century, where there weren’t many natural resources for medicinal purposes. This caused the indigenous deaths to skyrocket at the time. Najavo Nation, for instance lost 12% of its population to the H1N1 virus, whereas the global mortality rate is estimated to have been 5%. Although one would believe this sort of inhumanity is behind us, there are to this day, large similarities when it comes to where the mortality rate is highest. For instance, in Brazil, the most affected groups of people are those living in favelas, where there is worse sanitation, less access to water, less access to treatment and often many families live together in small spaces. It is almost impossible for those in Brazil who need to work restlessly every day to assure their own survival, to stop working and go into isolation, especially when we consider that most of these don’t have a fixed paycheck. Just in the Favelas in Rio, according to a collection of data by ‘ComCat’ in 2021, there had been 3,285 estimated deaths caused by covid; more than the amount of deaths in 162 countries. Furthermore, the UN estimates that 150 million people crossed below the poverty line during the pandemic, and at the same time, according to Forbes data, Oxfam appoints that the wealth of the world’s billionaires grew in about 60%. Therefore, 100 years later, we can still observe the exacerbating inequality in society; as the wealthiest, and most powerful continue to gain, while the majority have countless less opportunities, and therefore tend to suffer more in desperate times.
To conclude, it is interesting how much two pandemics, though so far apart chronologically, correlate so much in many areas. The unknown is what makes us behave like we do in times of chaos and uncertainty, and is there bigger uncertainty than a sudden, mysterious virus taking over every part of the world without warning? It is no wonder we had no idea how to deal with such a change in our lives, and in every outbreak, despite the advances in medicine and information, the obvious is to take the same measures we have always taken, from the black plague, to smallpox, to Influenza, finally to the Corona Virus.