Lessons from pandemics past

Alissa Chang, Co Editor

Each time a pandemic has broken out, the responses from society have all seemed to share commonalities, resulting in similar outcomes. Knowing this, can we stop history from repeating itself and change the course of this pandemic?

“We’re all learning all the time and adjusting our strategy, based on the latest available evidence. We can only say what we know, and we can only act on what we know,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

One term that each of us became familiar with these past months is social distancing. Historically, there are many instances where social distancing saved lives, and as well, where the lack of it has cost lives. 

The first piece of evidence that we see is that pandemics began when civilizations formed villages and cities. Once people are put at close quarters, a pandemic can easily arise. This points to the assumption that the opposite would be true: once we separate ourselves from others, the pandemic can slow.

Another proof of this is the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. In Philadelphia, a parade was thrown to celebrate after the first world war. Death rates instantly spiked, overwhelming the city’s resources. However, in another city, St. Louis, strict social distancing was enforced, and the curve flattened. The death rates were much lower each day, spread out over a longer period of time, allowing the city to easily deal with it with their given resources.

Yet another instance is the Columbian Exchange. During this period of time, diseases ran rampant because of the incredible connectedness of the world. Well-established trade and commerce routes spread disease along with the imports and exports. If we remain less connected for a while, we can stop the spread of this pandemic.

However, not every response to past pandemics has been a good thing. For example, disinformation has long been a major cause of difficulty during pandemics. Ideas like xenophobia, blaming specific groups of people, and distrust of the government have all divided us when we needed to work together to find a solution.

One particular case is the anti-semitism during the Black Death. Jews were often blamed for the pandemic, and in many instances, killed.

Another occurrence of disinformation was during the 1495 syphilis outbreak. This pandemic had many countries pointing fingers at each other, meaning that these world leaders were not working together to solve the problem. The Italians, English, and Germans called it the “French disease.” Russians called it the “Polish disease.” Turks called it the “Christian disease.”

Already, we see widespread disinformation during our coronavirus pandemic. Our society’s culture of blame and scapegoating caused us many problems in the past, but we can still change our course and the way we choose to act and respond.

One of the most harmful things that our society has done to respond to pandemics in the past is panic. Fear has caused great suffering in times of crisis like these.

“We think of the US as one of the most well resourced places in the world when it comes to healthcare, but it just goes to show that when there’s sort of widespread panic, normal supplies can be depleted fairly quickly,” said Houston ER physician Dr. Cedric Dark.

Right now, due to hoarding, we are experiencing shortages of toilet paper, food, and medical supplies like gloves, face masks, and other personal protective equipment. As a result, many medical personnel like Dark are unable to access the necessary protective gear, leaving them vulnerable.

During the Black Death, as another example, many would whip and harm themselves to appease God’s wrath. This wasn’t a rational response to the pandemic, but rather an action built from fear.

In the Spanish Flu pandemic, many children died, not because of disease, but because of neglect and starvation. Many adults were not willing to take care of infected children, for fear of getting infected themselves. This fear became more dangerous than the illness itself and cost too many children’s lives. Life expectancy at birth during the pandemic dropped by over ten years.

The Red Cross reported, “people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.”

Even now, the spread of anti-vaccination beliefs has resulted in the outbreaks of many preventable infections, like measles. The skepticism and even fear of medicine meant to protect us have cost us lives. Not only has this affected the non-vaccinated people themselves, but it has also put others at risk due to the lack of herd immunity.

Another current situation where fear has divided us is the HIV pandemic. The stigma against those who are HIV-positive is extremely harmful to our entire society. Much of this is also due to disinformation.

All of these responses to our past pandemics can help lead us in our response as a global community during this pandemic.

“Only by working together will we bring this pandemic under control. The work has to happen not only at the international and national level, but also at the community level,” said Tedros.