People wait in line to get flu masks on Montgomery Street in San Francisco in 1918. (Hamilton Henry Dobbin / California State Library)
Mission Vista High School

Opinion: What history can tell us about coronavirus

Recently, you’ve probably headed to your local grocery store to buy a few essentials, only to find that you have to wait in line for minutes or even hours. Today, this is a common occurrence throughout the world as we are in the midst of a pandemic.

Not only has COVID-19 infected many people, it has also infected our society. It has taken over the economy, news media, social media and everyday conversation.

From a historical perspective, however, today’s COVID-19 outbreak is very minor compared to other pandemics in history. The Black Death and the Spanish Flu each killed more than 75 million people combined, according to  Britannica and the Centers for Disease Control.

As such, it’s easy to see why so many are in a panic over COVID-19. From what history has shown us, such an alarming virus must mean big trouble, right? Will we relive the horrors of the past?

Before we answer these questions, let’s take a look at one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Although COVID-19 and Spanish Flu are not the same viruses, this has little to do with predicting similarities between both outbreaks. Instead, it’s necessary to consider the historical, technological and social factors that differ between the two.

The Spanish Flu’s invasion of Europe coincided with World War One in 1918. The Centers for Disease Control says the Spanish Flu was actually first recorded in the United States, despite its name. Most European countries were already occupied with a war like no other.

Despite the many warnings about the Spanish Flu from the medical community, the governments of the world didn’t pay attention to them. Trenches on the battlefield and hospitals were often packed and overcrowded.

The close proximity between individuals accelerated the spread of the virus. As a result, more American soldiers were killed by the Spanish Flu rather than in battle, as stated in a report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Medical knowledge at the time was not as developed as it is today. Prior to the pandemic in 1918, there were other major outbreaks from 1848-49 and 1889-90. In another paper published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, it is stated that most knowledge regarding disease came from studies that were conducted in response to these incidents.

One German scientist, Richard Pfeiffer, published work that was widely accepted in the medical community. It declared that the cause of influenza was a certain class of bacteria, called bacilli, according to the same paper.

Today, we know that this is false. Influenza, and thus the Spanish Flu, is a virus. We also have much more effective influenza vaccines, as well as refined medical knowledge and technology.

In addition to this misinformation, the emphasis on Eugenics was particularly harmful. As defined by an article published by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology, Eugenics was a field of study that focused on encouraging breeding between individuals with “good genetics” in order to eliminate undesirable traits and increase the occurrence of desirable ones.

Although genetics has quite a large presence in science, Eugenics and its ideas were harmful, especially at a time when there was much still to be discovered and problems to be solved. It suggested that the occurrence of certain diseases was due to inadequacies in an individual’s genetics and ethnicity, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

This, combined with the mindset that certain traits should be cultivated in order to improve the human race, proved to be a difficult obstacle in the advancement of medicine. Nowadays, it has faded away due to a more accepting society.

Coronavirus and the Spanish Flu are similar in multiple ways. Both are viruses, and both appeared suddenly and spread across the globe faster than expected. However, we can expect that COVID-19 will not reach anywhere near this scale; not because of a difference between the viruses, but because of a difference between the circumstances.

The world in 1918 was plagued not only by influenza but also by war, naivety, and ignorance. Presently, these have been greatly reduced. Instead of looking at history as a reason to be afraid of today’s threat, we should examine the lessons learned and trust in the amazing accomplishments that shape and protect our everyday lives.