Lessons from the second deadly wave of the 1918 flu pandemic for the coronavirus era


Research has sought to answer a key question: was social distance effective in 1918 in slowing the spread of the disease and saving lives?

Navarro said cities that have closed schools and banned public gatherings have weathered the flu better. “They had both lower and higher peaks and cases of overall mortality and morbidity,” he said.

In fact, state-wide orders making masks mandatory and closing nonessential business were widespread in 1918. San Francisco, for example, fined people who did not wear masks in public, causing protests.

Current research on the success of social distancing efforts to facilitate the spread of the new coronavirus leads to the same conclusion.

But different levels of application combined with the First World War created a variety of consequences in 1918. This fall marked the second and deadliest wave of the disease in the United States.

“The pandemic started in the military camps above all. The military therefore worked to try to control these epidemics in the camps, ”said Navarro. “The average Joe in the fall of 1918 was very concerned about things like the Liberty Loan readers. “

Other cities like Denver lifted restrictions in November on the day of the armistice to celebrate the end of the war, but experienced a more deadly peak.

“Almost all of the cities we looked at reported that huge crowds immediately gathered downtown in shops, cafes, theaters and bowling alleys,” said Navarro, adding that overcrowding has occurred. the same day that the social distancing orders were lifted.

Navarro notes that the main difference between 1918 and the current coronavirus pandemic is the very different economic landscape – in particular the role of retail, restaurants, cinemas and other small businesses. “They could close places of public entertainment and not have the same type of impact on the local economy in 1918 because the manufacturing sector was so dominant,” said Navarro. “This is an economy based on the service sector. So I think we have a much bigger and more serious economic impact today than we did in 1918. “

“Even if the historical context changes, there will be a great clamor to resume a normal life,” he said. “It could have terrible consequences for public health.”


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