History Could Repeat — Beware The Warnings From The 1918 Flu Pandemic

March 21, 2021

Another Sunday under the near-suffocating blanket of the COVID-19 pandemic, and although case numbers are falling and the vaccine-jabbing is gaining speed, the optimism which filled the airwaves the last week or so seems a bit farfetched and maybe a bit premature.
According to the John Hopkins data-board, the US has experienced 542,199 COVID deaths as of this morning, all off 29,808,196 confirmed cases — here in California, we’ve still ticking-up with 57,425 deaths.

A couple of blips on the optimism chart — first, those fucking COVID variants, the worse the B.1.1.7 variety, first spotted in the UK, which spreads way-quicker then the original shit, and appears more deadly.
Anthony Fauci warned us on Friday: “Since then it has been detected in 50 jurisdictions in the United States, and likely accounts now for about 20 to 30-percent of the infections in this country. And that number is growing … The way we can counter 1.1.7, which is a growing threat in our country, is to do two things: To get as many people vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible with the vaccine that we know works against this variant and, finally, to implement the public health measures that we talk about all the time … masking, physical distancing, and avoiding congregant settings, particularly indoors.”

Of course, there’s this (h/t tweet BJ):

And this shit, too:

The Idaho legislature voted Friday to close down until early April after a coronavirus outbreak among six members of the state House.

The recess, which will last until April 6, comes after five Republicans and a Democrat in the lower chamber tested positive for the virus.
Several GOP lawmakers in both chambers have declined to wear masks during in-person sessions, according to The Associated Press.

“We can’t help but be disappointed in how bad things have become at the Capitol, when we could’ve prevented this from becoming a hot spot all along,” Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said in a joint statement.

“We are just so sorry it took so many people getting sick for us to act. We must do better when we return, or else we’ll keep finding ourselves in this position.”

Yeah, right — Republican assholes. What do people expect in a place where they burn masks in protest. Assholes!

Despite Fauci’s urging, and all the feedback from health experts on masks, social distancing, washing hands, stay away from crowded places, and so forth, the COVID pandemic is more than a medical problem, but a social one as well. I received my first COVID vaccine shot a week ago (the Pfizer one), and scheduled for the second jab early next month. Even with a record-breaking vaccine roll-out the light at the end of the tunnel just might be a train, mainly because of all of the above, and history, too.

Sometimes the archives don’t lie (h/t tweet also BJ):

A view of what’s ahead with COVID-19 can be somewhat reflected from the infamous 1918 flu worldwide pandemic and how long the shit will stain our lives and backlash a return to ‘normal,’ whatever that really is — a perspective from Knute Berger at Crosscut, published last Thursday.
Although Berger’s perspective is off Seattle/Washington state, the reasoning is for everywhere — some snips:

One of the first articles I wrote warned against “premature optimism.”
After six weeks in lockdown, from early October to mid-November 1918, Seattle opened up, thinking we had licked the flu just as we had beaten the Germans in World War I.
After the Armistice in November 1918, people paraded, celebrated, dove into renewed holiday socializing and took off their masks.
Predictably, the flu crept back and killed many in a deadly wave.

Just as now, there was controversy over wearing masks and over school closures. There was pushback against the government’s authority to make or enforce public health rules. Conflicting advice from the medical community didn’t help.
Quack cures were pushed. In 1919, anti-vaccination activists protested and defied inoculation advice and quarantine in the middle of the pandemic and a simultaneous outbreak of smallpox in Seattle public schools!

There was intense political pressure to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. Seeing so much of the same now is not reassuring.
Although we seem to finally be on a more positive course in dealing with COVID, my confidence in the public has been undermined by more than 530,000 dead and states like Texas and Mississippi that are opening up, but where the virus is far from contained.
Given that new variants of COVID have emerged and may still emerge — as even the Spanish influenza mutated in 1918 — the importance of continued vigilance and mask wearing is crucially important.

Other unsettling things I keep in mind: The name and dates we’ve given to the earlier pandemic are wrong. It is routinely referred to as the Spanish influenza pandemic and said to have raged from 1918 to 1919. Well, the Spanish flu wasn’t Spanish — its origin was more plausibly in rural Kansas — and the oft-cited date gives a false sense of its duration.
In fact, early signs arguably appeared in 1917 and the flu continued to flare up in places as late as 1922 before it “sputtered out.”
Newspaper accounts suggest it was still rearing its head in Seattle as late as the winter of 1921.
In other words, instead of a one-year or two-year misery, its arc covered four to five years, long after flu deaths had peaked.
The global death estimate is at least 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million.

In addition, many of the influenza’s impacts were long-term.
The social impact was great. Some 700,000 deaths in the U.S., and many scores of broken families.
In New York City alone it is estimated that, by the end of 1918, 31,000 children had lost one or both parents to the pandemic.
Communities of color and Indigenous communities were hit particularly hard — entire villages in Alaska virtually disappeared, and some islands in the South Pacific, like Samoa, were devastated.

And normal, whatever that is, might be a long way off.
Consider that the decade after the 1918-1922 pandemic saw the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, social upheaval, Jazz Age excess, the rise of fascism and financial recklessness that helped lead to the Great Depression.

The post-COVID era, if there is such an era, will be a huge test.
The history of pandemics and epidemics shows they rarely end with a bright, sharp before and after.
Yes, we’re resilient, and there is opportunity for reinvention and righting old wrongs. I believe there will be positive progress in ways we can’t now predict.

What’s that old history-related saying — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Oh, fuck off, George Santayana…

(Illustration: Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)‘ found here).

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