What is to be Done?: History and the Coronavirus

By Liliana Stansberry 

Is COVID-19 an example of history repeating itself, a repeat of the Spanish influenza pandemic that occurred almost exactly 100 years ago?  How do these two deadly pandemics compare and what have we learned from the past that can help us battle this current global issue? 

The Spanish Influenza pandemic began in January 1918 and lasted till December 1920 and infected a quarter of the world’s population. The origin of the Spanish Influenza is still unknown. For starters, both pandemics are respiratory viruses. However, current data seems to reflect that the Coronavirus is less lethal than the Spanish Influenza, which was estimated to have a 20% case fatality rate according to CNN. 

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that scientists do not have sufficient data yet, so the current standing 3.4% death rate, according to Worldometer, may not be an accurate reflection of the real impact of the disease. Although the lower mortality rate is beneficial, the current pandemic does seem to be more easily transferred from one person to the next. Even with this lower mortality rate, because the virus is so infectious, society will still face consequences and chaos.

Knowing that the disease is highly infectious and will claim the lives of many, what precautions can we make to better our chances in quicky resolving this pandemic with minimal damage to our health and the economy? Many countries, such as Poland, have been very quick to try and limit social interactions by imposing restrictions people must abide by. 

There were similar reactions to the outbreak of the Spanish flu, some cities cut off epidemic-stricken areas, setting up quarantine stations, and body washing was demanded by the government. This was done through the Act of 19 February 1920 which aimed to fight disease. This law made it obligatory to report cases of influenza. 

This was, however, very difficult to enforce during that time period specifically because of the detrimental damage to Poland post-WW1 along with the lack of a stable government because of their newly regained independence. Nevertheless, The Lethal Spanish Influenza Pandemic in Poland case study(Grabowski, Kosińska, Knap, & Brydak 2017) suggests that approximately 4% of the Polish population was killed, which is significantly less than the estimated 6% of the world population dead. This indicates that the prevention methods used in Poland may have been effective. 

By limiting interactions between people in regular day to day life, governments are reducing the spread of the highly contagious disease. This seems to be a decent solution, for the public health aspect of the problem. Similarly to Poland, St. Louis imposed social distancing early during the 1918 pandemic which better enabled them to ensure safety for their citizens in contrast to other places where the disease was overlooked at first. This solution, however, almost inevitably results in an economic downturn. When many people cannot go to work, service jobs become much more difficult to maintain.

Another option that has been considered by countries such as the UK is the idea of “herd immunity”. The idea is that we let the pandemic charge through society but not let the economy take a hit. This has been the standpoint of Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, and rests on the idea that the “medicine” might be more harmful than the disease. In an interview with The New Yorker, author John Berry explains that Philadelphia seemed to take this approach, for which the outcome was bleak. A huge Liberty Loan parade took place on September 28, 1918, despite everyone wanting it canceled within the health community except the public health commissioner. The result was an explosion of the disease in Philadelphia. 

So, should we put our lives on a temporary pause or do we continue life as normal allowing millions to die? Well, that depends on the price that will need to be paid in both circumstances. Based on current data, it seems that the economy will surge once the pandemic settles down. However, there will still be many unemployed workers who will not be contributing members to the economy and there will need to be increased government spending through unemployment benefits. Nevertheless, with a surge in demand more factors of production will be employed which will quickly reduce unemployment, reverting the economy back to the natural rate of unemployment.

Unfortunately, this is a lose, lose situation. But after both historical and economic evaluation, it seems that most governments will agree that the best solution to this issue is social distance. It is the best way to flatten the curve below our medical capacity, which will allow for the mortality rate to drop. Eventually, this will lead us to herd immunity, where enough people are immune that the virus stops spreading, or to a vaccine. Hopefully we will soon revert to life as “normal,” and the economic damage can be repaired. 

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