Different Pandemics Similar Lessons-Ishana Sharma

Covid-19 started 16-18 months ago, and ever since has been devastating the world. As a matter of fact, it is not the first pandemic that occurred in the world. One of the first pandemics is dated back to 541 AD when there was an outbreak of the contagious Plague of Justinian. However, the most well documented pandemics in history is the Spanish flu which started in 1918 and is believed to have infected 500 million people, a little less than one-third of the world population. It killed approximately 50 million people, which is even more than World War I, which killed 20 million people. These pandemics became the storm which uprooted the world and every facet of society. They also came with an element of randomness.

After the 541 AD pandemic came the bubonic plague in 1346, followed by the sixth Cholera pandemic in 1899 and the Spanish flu, Asian flu and Hong Kong flu in 1918, 1957 and 1968, respectively. There was also a Swine flu outbreak in 2009.

Renowned historian, Patrick Zylberman rightly said, “The virus might have attacked ‘democratically’, but the society it attacked was hardly egalitarian.” Since we are all aware of this fact, it is essential to adjust and act according to the current requirement of the local people who are affected. During the course of these several pandemics, there are a plethora of things which people have learnt the hard way. Many innocent children were orphaned, adults were unemployed and depressed, and the elderly were left to provide for themselves.

Cholera, which is an acute diarrheal disease that can take lives within hours if left untreated, caused an outbreak in Jessore, India in 1817 due to contaminated rice. This illness killed a myriad people, due to salient factors which were not accounted for back then. One of them being lack of awareness, the other being detection of the illness and lastly, hygiene. During the outbreak, an astonishingly large amount of people were not educated about the disease and its effects on one’s health. Due to this, they continued with their lives and so did the spread of the disease. Furthermore, lack of the ability to detect, isolate and treat worsened the situation. Lastly, another factor which greatly affected this pandemic in particular was hygiene. The disease is caused due to the drinking of water or eating of food contaminated by an infected person.

After Cholera came the Spanish flu. The first confirmed cases of the flu originated in the United States. Alfred W. Crosby, author of Epidemic and Peace, 1918, stated that the contagion of the H1N1 virus is Kansas. The entire world suffered medically, financially and socially during these atrocious times of crisis.

One noticeable and salient learning from the Spanish flu outbreak was to never hide the truth from the public and maintain complete transparency. Do you know how the flu got its name? The reason is that back in the 1900s, when the spread of the disease had increased, the actual data was not revealed to the public in many countries. What was revealed was superficial data which was obviously not reliable and made the public think that the situation was under control. However, this was not the case in Spain. There, the government believed in releasing accurate data to the public. This made the native people as well as those from other countries believe that the situation in Spain was much worse in comparison to other countries; hence giving the outbreak its name. The condition worsened in those countries where the truth was sugar-coated and the people too stopped taking precautionary measures, leading to a severe outbreak.

Another major revelation during the Spanish flu outbreak was that non-pharmaceutical precautionary measures such as masks, sanitizers and social distancing are actually effective. For instance, there was a backlash against taking precautionary measures in San Francisco in late 1918 and early 1919. This backlash occurred when the outbreak was at one of its peaks. This is because people were “fed up”. Some libertarians and activists even suggested that this was a breach and violation of their freedom and fundamental rights. This not only led people to avoid masks but also prevented the government to make masks mandatory. This shows that human behavior is rather predictable and their response to pandemics of this enormity is not new-found.

Finally, coming to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, we all wonder what made this disease, which has already galloped out of control, so deadly. We knew all along that a pandemic was imminent. However, it is human nature to pay lesser attention to things in the future which may leave a drastic impact on us. Although some pre-planning would have benefitted us, we can change for the better now as well.

Lessons which we can learn from to possibly reduce spread and panic are as follows. The Cholera pandemic taught us to educate and inform people about the disease and being able enough of detecting the illness, containing it and rightfully treating it with proper medical guidance. This outbreak made us realize the actual importance and necessity of living in a hygienic fashion. The Spanish flu also left us with valuable learnings. We must understand that truth and transparency are of key importance, social distancing and masks work, and lastly, we must trust the medical experts and epidemiologists who can analyze the situation and then take necessary action. Judging by the immense amount of advancement in medical facilities, infrastructure and technology, we can overcome this too by following simple measures and committing to being self-aware and also making others aware in the process.

These lessons may sound straightforward, but they actually require to be understood by everyone to prove to be functional and fruitful. Therefore, let us make sure that the egregious history does not repeat itself and take the lives of another 50 million people. Let us have faith in the experts and listen to them rather than argue with them. Let us learn from our past mistakes and failures and come out of this situation victorious as ever.

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