Covid-19 is currently the most urgent global issue, has already affected millions and caused the deaths of thousands worldwide. However, this is not the first pandemic that human civilization has had to endure. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people, making it the deadliest pandemic in modern history. And in 2003, SARS-CoV-2 (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) affected 26 countries, affecting 8,098 people. As such, many lessons can be learned from how the world dealt with the Spanish flu and SARS in order to better combat the coronavirus today.
History of the Spanish flu
One would be misguided in believing that the Spanish flu originated in Spain. The only reason people refer to it this way is that Spain allowed its newspapers to report the flu, including how it caused their King, Alfonso XIII, to become ill. As a result, many people wrongly interpreted that the flu originated in Spain. In contrast, other countries who were also dealing with the disease, but involved in wars, did not report the outbreak because they believed that the news would demoralize their soldiers and citizens.
There is no consensus on where the virus originated. “Initially, many controversial theories arose pointing to China,” wrote Laura Spinney in her book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (2017). “The quick pointing of fingers to the East was probably influenced unconsciously by the West’s attitudes towards East Asia” However, the first officially recognized case of the flu was found in a military base- Camp Funston in Kansas, United States.
According to Spinney, “the Spanish flu infected one in three people on earth, or 500 million human beings. Between the first case recorded on 4 March 1918, and the last sometime in March 1920, it killed 50–100 million people, or between 2.5 and 5 percent of the global population.”
More Americans died from the Spanish flu than they did in WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. But unlike the coronavirus, which affects mostly the elderly, the Spanish flu targeted people between the ages of 20 to 40.
In some cases, the flu showed usual symptoms like fever, chills, nausea, aches, diarrhea, and pneumonia. After the virus’s mutation, many patients suffered from violent symptoms like bleeding from the nose, ears, and eyes.
History of SARS
SARS-CoV-2 is a viral respiratory disease that was recognized as a global threat in March 2003. It first appeared in the Guangdong Province of Southern China. The virus is thought to be a virus transmitted to humans from animals.
SARS affected 26 countries, especially East Asian countries such as Taiwan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and Hongkong. The epidemic resulted in 8,098 cases and the deaths of 774 people.
Symptoms of the virus included a high fever (>38.0 ℃), followed by nausea, chill, headaches, diarrhea, and body pain. Victims suffered from frequent coughing that would lead to low oxygen levels in the body. Many patients acquired pneumonia. Social distancing and wearing masks were the main safety taken to combat the virus.
Lesson from Spanish Flu and SARS for COVID-19
Because there were no vaccines or lab tests to detect the Spanish flu, government officials relied on “nonpharmaceutical interventions” such as quarantine, isolation, and limits on public gatherings. It was mainly publicity campaigns and leaflets that warned against spreading disease through coughs and sneezes.
According to the National Institute of Health, “Officials in St. Louis imposed a broad series of safety measures to contain the flu within two days of the first reported cases. But Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Boston took longer to implement similar interventions. As a result, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Boston saw higher peak death rates than St. Louis.”
Similarly, it was at that time and still is extremely important to impose social restrictions to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus at the community level. Nepal’s context and scenario have demonstrated that a complete lockdown is not the solution, because the numbers of infected people have only been rising exponentially since the very first case was reported in January 2020. Different areas have been impacted on different levels, and prohibitory orders should be applied according to the severity of the situation so that the economy is not impacted negatively.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said, “While researchers are working very hard to develop the vaccines quickly, nonpharmaceutical interventions [lockdown, social distancing, testing, and contact tracing] may buy valuable time.”
Additionally, testing, contact tracing, and isolating infected patients must be done vigorously, to ensure that the virus is contained before it spreads to community transmissions.
East Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and Hongkong have been applauded internationally for effectively tackling the coronavirus, which could be attributed to the fact that these countries had dealt with the SARS virus back in 2003. They invested heavily in strengthening their public health services and were therefore well-equipped this time around against COVID-19. Having already experienced social distancing rules, the public had no problem following prohibitory orders and other safety measures either.
It has been widely discussed that the pandemic will only end once every person is vaccinated. However, developing and manufacturing a vaccine is extremely challenging and time-consuming. Hence, people should not be too eager about returning to normalcy because, in the past, the countries that prematurely lifted their lockdown orders were the ones that suffered most later on.
Aashish Sunar, Sub Editor and Writer for Kathmandu Pati English, covers issues on politics, marginalized community, international relations, economics, and sports. He is pursuing an undergraduate degree in International Studies and Economics at Soka University of America. He tweets @imAashishSunar.