Lessons from pandemic fatigue in 1918

US officials in 1918 threaten jail who does not wear a mask. (Image credit: reddit.com).

The United States is a world apart. In that huge continent country, a melting pot of cultures in which people from all over the planet converged, you can find traditions and expressions of your own that are not seen anywhere else. Let’s say we are talking about numerology. Did you know that 13% of Americans are afraid to stay on a 13th floor? Did you know that when they want to refer to the first lesson of a course on any subject, in which they will simply lay the foundations of the basic aspects of the subject, they will talk about the class “one oh one“? (literally “1 0 1”).

Ah the 101! A precious number that turns out to be the first three-digit capicúa, and that also has acquired a strong positive connotation in North America in the marketing world. Have you heard that “to infinity and beyond”? Well, before Toy Story made it famous, we already had an expression that reflected that paradox that is associated with going beyond the limits, or with giving more than 100%. That is the reason that explains the enormous proliferation on the internet of compilations of information, on any subject, say for example “amazing facts of the Earth amazing facts of the Earth”, which try to catch us with the bait of 101. Or did you think that the phenomenon was born with the Dalmatians?

But let’s stop the curiosities about the numbers and focus on the story. I am going to give you some characteristics of a specific time, and you will have to guess what year I am talking about:

· State and local officials enact a series of measures including social distancing, a list of prohibitions, lockdown orders, and the requirement to wear a mask.

· The public responds by complying with the measures in a generalized way, although there are also complaints, rejections and even people who totally defy the government’s measures.

· The owners of the theaters and dance halls complain about the amount of their economic losses.

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· Priests protest the closure of temples despite the fact that factories are open.

· Officials argue about the safety of children in schools. Can they attend in person or is it better to stay at home?

· Many citizens refuse to wear masks in public, some because they complain about their discomfort, others because they believe that they violate their rights.

Were you thinking about the first months of the covid-19 pandemic? Well no, all these things happened during the so-called Spanish flu, the pandemic that killed millions of people around the planet back in 1918. Indeed, it seems that despite those “101” years apart Between both world plagues (geez with the figure) humanity has not just learned.

There the similarities do not end. What has been observed during the current covid-19 pandemic has been on many occasions a true reflection of what happened a century before in western countries like the United States.

Take, for example, what happened with grouping restrictions, which involved social distancing measures. In 1918, the first decisions taken in this regard helped reduce the cases of death and infections. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, and a few weeks after the first measures calling for social distancing (which happened in early autumn) the pandemic seemed to be approaching its end, as the number of infected decreased .

It was then that the clamor of the people began to be heard, that they demanded to return to normality. Entrepreneurs pressured officials to allow them to reopen their businesses. Many state and local authorities indeed believed that the worst was over, and they repealed public health measures. The nation then turned to addressing the devastation the disease had caused.

Funerals and events were organized in memory of the thousands of those affected who had lost their lives. Many of those still recovering from the effects of the disease began to demand aid and government attention.

At a time when the concept of “governmental social benefits” existed, it had to be charitable organizations that mobilized in search of resources to support those families that had lost their economic supporters, or to seek accommodation for the thousands. of orphans.

Brisbane (Australia) women wearing surgical masks during the 1918 flu epidemic. (Creative commons image seen on Flickr - credit: Queensland State Library).Brisbane (Australia) women wearing surgical masks during the 1918 flu epidemic. (Creative commons image seen on Flickr - credit: Queensland State Library).

Brisbane, Australia women wearing surgical masks during the 1918 flu epidemic. (Creative commons image seen on Flickr – credit: Queensland State Library).

Despite warnings from officials, who warned that deaths and infections would probably last for months, and that a return to normalcy was still far away, citizens prematurely launched themselves to celebrate the end of the pandemic. Probably the cause we must look for in the historical moment. The First World War had just ended, and the population believed that the conflict had claimed many more lives than the disease. On the other hand, at the beginning of the 20th century, people were more used to deadly diseases than they are now. Every year thousands of fellow citizens died from regular epidemics of diphtheria, measles, tuberculosis, typhus, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and pneumonia.

Scientific culture did not exist, and people did not understand well either the causes or the effects of the pandemic. So much so, that many “experts” were not convinced that social distancing measures worked.

But that wasn’t the only difference, of course. At that time they did not have an effective vaccine against that flu caused (today we know) by a type A virus, subtype H1N1. In fact, it took until 1945 to have a safe vaccine available to the population. Obviously too late, since between February 1918 and April 1920, when the pandemic struck with its different waves, it is believed that between 20 and 50 million people died around the world.

One of the main causes of this overwhelming death toll is due to the rush of people to regain their normalcy. Today, 101 years after that chain of errors and the price in human lives that was paid for it, it seems that we continue to fall into the same traps.

It does not matter that we understand the disease much better, that we have technological and scientific aids unimaginable a century ago. Despite the fact that epidemiologists appear every day in our global media, giving truthful and contrasted information, we continue to hear cases of clandestine parties, denialist rulers, and businessmen clamoring to end the restrictions.

They forget that covid-19 is much more contagious than influenza A of 1918, and that the fearsome third wave of that pandemic should alert us to the consequences of forgetting too soon the risk to which we are subjected.

Let’s not lower our guard. The story is there to remind us of what happens when pandemic fatigue kicks in. In 1918 the price to pay was very high, but we only have to endure a few more months until the desired goal of vaccinating 70% of the population is met.

The end is to the nightmare is a stone’s throw away. Let us not lose heart.

I found out by reading an article by J. Alexander Navarro in Scientific American.

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