1818, 1918, 2019: The Pandemics that Changed the World!

Innocent Mwangi

 By Innocent Mwangi (Freelance Writer and Editor) Email: innocent@mwangi.org

The current outbreak of a ravaging virus known as COVID-2019, which broke out in Wuhan, China, sometime in November 2019, has changed how we work, socialize, and relate with each other.

Variously known as the new coronavirus, the flu is reminiscent of the 1918 Spanish Flu that left 50 million people dead. However, besides the parallels with that flu, COVID-19 has disrupted our lives and created a new normal.

Words like ‘bonding’ and ‘personal relationships’ have been replaced by a new word, ‘distancing’. We now talk of physical and social distancing as the best way of avoiding infection and infecting others with the virus.

We have even gone a step further to cover our smiles with a face mask for fear of spreading the virus or contracting it. In a word, what was ‘normal’ practice has now become an anathema. We can’t even shake hands as this is another potent method of spreading the disease. Hugs and kisses have more or less been outlawed. At weddings, the part ‘you may now kiss the bride” has been redacted. 

We talk of social distancing while there’s nothing social about the distance or shield we are creating. I understand and agree that all these WHO measures to combat and stop the virus are necessary. Nonetheless, it also means that the world has changed in ways that it may never be the same again.

As thousands die of the disease every day, governments are doing all they can to flatten the curve and avoid overwhelming hospitals. While the ‘curve’ refers to the exponential increase of new infections, ‘flattening’ refers to the slowing down of this increase to avoid overwhelming healthcare institutions.

To do this, governments have declared curfews, lockdowns, and quarantining as added measures. People are being told to stay at home and avoid gatherings of more than ten people.

Amid the panic and fear, the workplace has moved to our homes as people leverage technology. Interestingly, ‘home’ has also shifted. Technically, people are huddled in physical structures called homes. However, the real ‘home’ is the internet (this is where people are working from). Traffic on social networking sites has skyrocketed as people seek to bridge the social distancing gap.

Even after the pandemic runs its course and the last patient declared ‘recovered’, things will never be the same again. We are standing on a precipice of a once in a lifetime radical shift. Life as we knew it before COVID-19 will not be the same.

Flattening the Social Inequality Curve

However, in this turmoil is a glimmer of hope. As we work overtime to flatten the curve of this pandemic, the virus has also been busy flattening us. It has affected both the lofty and the lowly, the kings and the vagabonds. Businesses and learning institutions have been shuttered as governments rush to contain the pandemic.

In essence, the virus has ‘rebooted’ the world. We are being reset to manufacturer’s default settings. As this is happening, new opportunities will present themselves all over the world. The playing field is being levelled (flattened) to allow anyone with a dream to finally put it into action.

New Opportunities

But where are these opportunities, or, rather, where will they be after this pandemic is over?

Opportunities are where people are. Right now people are at ‘home’. That’s where they are working. But ‘home’ is no longer what it used to be. The Internet is now the global home where everything is happening.

COVID-19 has forced us into a new era. We’re going through a world war unlike any other. Unlike in the past wars, the enemy is no longer a person, but a virus that’s sneaking in on us undetected.

So far as I write this (17 April 2019), there are 149,883 deaths in the world. If the current trend continues, there will be at least 200,000 deaths by the end of next week.

We’ve Hardly Changed

To understand the prevailing opportunities and those that will arise post-COVID-19, we need to travel back to the early and mid-1990s that hosted the great world wars. To understand where we are and to project what’s to come, we need to look to the past for potential lessons.

The truth is that life hasn’t changed much since God created this world. In any case, the people on planet earth didn’t just appear. We are a progression of genetics and DNA passed down from one generation to another.

Yes, we’ve come up with inventions and adopted lifestyles that have changed the way we live and how we perceive things. We have nifty new tools and methods that would make our ancestors wonder how in the world we got here. Of course, they would be hard-pressed to explain how a grown-up man would sit behind a box known as a computer for a whole day instead of doing the more manly things like splitting wood or hunting down tonight’s dinner.

Despite what we call civilization, which has been cemented by technological advancements, we’re still the same people. We may have evolved over the years, but we have not changed a bit. We are no different than the early ancestors.

In fact, it could be argued that while we’ve become more sophisticated, our quality of life has diminished. The quality of the air we breathe, for instance, has severely deteriorated as climatic conditions change. We are today more likely to die of respiratory-related diseases than at any other time in history.

In terms of racial segregation, COVID-19 has uncovered the same vice that existed hundreds of years ago. What’s happening to Africans in China is a true reflection of how much we’ve unchanged.

Like so many years ago, some people still base their superiority on their pigmentation. We’ve created aircrafts, developed an information superhighway called the Internet, redefined education and governments, among many impressive inventions and innovations.

Despite all these advancements, we still revert to the same o same o primitive arguments as to which colour between black and white is superior!!! Isn’t this a travesty of humanity!

On second thought, it’s actually not a travesty per se!

This is humanity in its basest self. We’re descendants of the same genetic configurations as our nearest ancestor. As they were, genetically speaking, so are we. We propagate the same idiosyncrasies as they did. We discriminate as they did. We oppress as they did. We blame each other as they did. We rant and rave as they did. We mete out injustices as they did. In short, we are who they were. We are them!

Let’s Time Travel

To understand where we are and who we are today, we need to travel back in time so we can see how communities dealt with challenges such as the one we’re facing. By tracing how they bounced back onto prosperity path, we will (I hope) stop seeing ourselves as more special than they were (or even more special than others).

Exactly 100 years ago (March 1920, when the last case was recorded), about a third of the world population was infected by the ravaging flu known as the Spanish Flu. It had started in 1918 but lasted up to 1920. Like the current coronavirus flu, it also had no known cure. By the time a vaccine was developed and people developed immunity against it, between 50 and 100 million people had died worldwide.

As in the current pandemic, the elderly were most at risk. They died in droves. Also, people with underlying medical conditions were at a substantially higher risk of contracting the disease.

The flu came in two waves between 1918 and 1920. Countries that experienced the first wave were more prepared when the second one hit. Those that escaped the first wave and therefore felt secure in their ‘invincibility’ were decimated when the second wave hit. For instance, the Bristol Bay in Alaska, which was spared the first wave, was badly ravaged when the second wave hit it in October 1919.

Its population was reduced by 40%!!

Another Wave of COVID-19 Coming?

The first lesson we must learn from the Spanish Flu is that most likely we’ll suffer another coronavirus attack once the current wave wears out. This means we must prepare now rather than wait to run around like headless chicken as we did after the first Wuhan blast!

While we are better prepared than our ancestors back then, largely because of the benefits of hindsight, it’s instructive to note that they too adopted ‘social distancing’, wearing of masks and hand hygiene, as the best way to defeat the virus. Just as it is today, quarantine centers and isolation zones were the order of the day. Mass gatherings were prohibited or tightly controlled. As a result, the virus was slowed down before it finally disappeared in March 1920.

The Aftermath

Largely due to the prevailing inequalities in the world, the Spanish Flu revealed deep-seated issues that were later to erupt. By this time, a feeling that some members of the society were nobler than others by dint of their ‘royal bloodline’ had started to take hold. Some universities even established a new discipline called eugenics to study this phenomenon.

This flawed perception was used to imply that those who died deserved to die. In India, which was hygienically unprepared to handle the crisis, 17 million people were wiped out by the pandemic. The British government handling of its colony during this pandemic was lacklustre at best, or completely standoffish.

The less-developed world, most of which were under colonization, erupted in protests. Imperialist protests became the order of the day as subjects agitated for more freedom and self-governance. As the pandemic spread, it became evident that science was not going to help. 

Enter Conspiracy Theories

Faced with hapless scientists, people turned to God for an explanation.

They saw the pandemic as an act of God. To them, people had turned from God and consequently made Him “legitimately angry”. And science had failed them.

As it was then, millions of people today hold this same view about COVID-19. There are even more exciting conspiracy theories about ‘eugenics’ rearing its ugly head. Some believe there are some powerful forces behind these pandemics. They believe these mega-rich people are keen to slow down the global populations. 

While this last proposition may appear far-fetched at first glance, it’s not hard to imagine how one could come to such a conclusion. In fact, Charles Darwin, in an attempt to justify the theory of evolution, alluded to the preservation of favoured species by natural selection through the struggle to stay alive. He seems to suggest that only the best (strongest, most intelligent) species survive.

It’s therefore not inconceivable that some people would think there are mysterious (and not-so-mysterious) individuals helping the ‘natural selection’ as they seek to preserve what they perceive as their “royal bloodline”. The timing of the pandemics since 1818 seems to give weight to this suspicion. Why every 100 years!! Three times in a row? Well… it’s a free world; we are allowed to speculate.

Conclusion

Looking at the parallels between COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu of 1918, it’s uncanny how the two pandemics mirror each other. It’s also extremely uncanny how our reactions to the flu mirror those of 1918. Despite the advancements in science that the world has witnessed, 100 years later, the hopes of beating the current virus still lie, as it did then, on a few basic guidelines: avoid crowded places, maintain social distance, wash hands, wear masks, and stay at home.

We may pride ourselves on being better prepared than our predecessors, but peering closely into history, you will find a very interesting thread: we don’t learn from history. However, it’s not that we don’t learn per se, but our capacity is constrained by genetics and DNA; we are who our ancestors were 100 years ago.

Otherwise what would explain the US government’s inaction and ineptitude even after being warned of the virus as far back as December 2019? Even with years of pandemics simulation, the world was still caught flat-footed as it was in 1918, and 100 years before that.

In any case, seeing that it looks like the world has had a pandemic every 100 years since 1818 when the first Asiatic Cholera outbreak appeared, it makes sense to have systems in place to deal with such an eventuality (blaming China for being economical with the truth won’t absolve any nation from its responsibility). If the trend continues, 100 years down the line, there’s likely to be another pandemic. I would really love to be wrong on this prediction.

Luckily, most of us won’t be aroundto prove me right, or wrong!

References

1. Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: J. Murray, 1859.

2. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. September 2019. Preparedness for a High-Impact Respiratory Pathogen Pandemic.

3. The First Cholera Pandemic. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/history-of-cholera

4. Michael R. Snyder and Sanjana J. Ravi. 2018. “1818, 1918, 2018: Two Centuries of Pandemics”, Health Security 16(6). Published Online on 13 Dec 2018 https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2018.0083

5. Spanish Flu: the virus that changed the world. Source: https://www.historyextra.com/period/20th-century/spanish-flu-the-virus-that-changed-the-world/

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Bio: Innocent Mwangi is a freelance writer and blogger. He writes on contemporary issues among other topics published on his website: www.mwangi.org. You can reach him by email at innocent@mwangi.org

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