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Examining COVID-19 versus previous pandemics

COVID-19 vs previous pandemics graphic
Photo by Dylan Smith and Audrey White

COVID-19 may be a stranger who trespassed into our lives uninvited, but it is not the first. Rather, COVID-19 followed in the footsteps of a historic line of pandemic intrudersMicrobiology and molecular biology associate professor Brian Poole provides insight on how COVID-19 relates to previous pandemics.

COVID-19 is the most similar to the 1918 flu. Both pandemics originated in animals—one in bats, the other in birds—and were foreign to humans with no immunity, making them novel. Their intense affect is easily illustrated through fatality rates. The 1918 flu had an approximate two percent fatality rate and COVID-19 currently has a 0.6 percent fatality rate. The difference may not seem dramatic, but it accounts for millions of deaths making the 1918 flu far deadlier than what the world is currently experiencing.

The response to COVID-19 is similar to the 1918 pandemic, more dramatic than SARS, and more widespread than AIDS. Throughout history, the response to protect the world during pandemics has been very similar. Poole stated that the response to COVID-19 mirrors the 1918 flu, “the social distancing, quarantine, and even isolation of whole communities also happened in that pandemic.” Fortunately, healthcare continues to improve.

The reaction to protective measures implemented to battle a plague is very similar through history. The black plague caused people to blame outsiders as scapegoats. In England, there was violence towards the Flemish. During COVID-19 we saw hatred directed towards the Chinese. There was public resistance to the government’s intervention during the second cholera outbreak. During COVID-19, many people protest wearing masks, closure of businesses, and social distancing. History showcases a pattern of pandemic reactions.

The amount of care and trust in healthcare professionals determines recovery rate and effectiveness. Poole commented on the recovery from the 1918 flu saying, “places that isolated the most tended to have the best outcomes, and their economies responded fairly quickly once the virus was gone.” This is a similar scenario with COVID-19—South Korea is a good example of finding success in enforcing quarantine and providing effective healthcare. Throughout history, the isolation, sanitization, and social distancing have always been effective responses.

Pandemics have long-lasting effects on the world. Although SARS was easier to detect and not as widespread, it influenced mask-wearing, especially in Asia. HIV inflicted a critical stigma at first, then as activism flourished, greater compassion was extended to the susceptible population. How will COVID-19 leave a lasting impression? Is mask wearing here to stay, will handshakes become abnormal, or will hand sanitizer always be a valued commodity? The long-term effects from COVID-19 are unknown, but they are sure to present themselves and put their stamp on history.

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