Ask A Historian: 1918 and 2020 Pandemics by Lawrence G. Duggan. “And even when there is progress, it’s usually three steps forward, two steps back.”

I’ve known the author for over forty years–and he has said some very memorable and fascinating things over these decades. I asked him to share some of his insights with readers of this blog. This is the first of three posts.
Lawrence G. Duggan is professor of history at the University of Delaware. He teaches and works on later medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and church history. He received his A.B. from the College of the Holy Cross (like Anthony Fauci) and his Ph.D. from Harvard.

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EPIDEMICS IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Now that the WHO has declared the coronavirus to be a worldwide epidemic, we can perhaps understand it better by juxtaposing it to something comparable in the past, not necessarily a recent one (like SARS in 2002-04 or ‘swine’ flu in 2009), but an epidemic farther back both similar and different in revealing ways. I would suggest comparison with what has been called the Great Influenza of 1918-19, precisely a century ago. A great deal of what we know (or, more precisely, think we know) about this catastrophe can be found online in an article on Wikipedia. Yes, I said Wikipedia and online, which many teachers and professors cavalierly dismiss out of hand. The fact is that using these resources, nearly everyone has instantaneous access to almost all of human knowledge. The present excellent article in Wikipedia is misleadingly entitled “Spanish flu,” a rubric that is being openly debated and will probably be soon replaced by something like “1918 influenza pandemic” (a debate that takes years to resolve in print media). In the space of about two years (some place the beginning in 1917, the end in 1920), a particularly virulent form of influenza spread throughout the world, killing at least 20 million people, more probably something like 50 million, and (a few say) possibly 100 million. More tellingly, it seems to have infected at least 500 million people out of an estimated world population of 1.8-1.9 billion. If we accept the reasonable estimate of 50 million dead, that would make a morbidity rate of around 27% (those sickened) and a mortality rate of 2.7% (those killed). These are interesting disparities, especially if one accepts a current view that the 1918-19 and present influenzas are variations on H1N1. But even if they’re not, such figures invite comparison. Although it’s early days yet with the corona virus (and no one knows how long this will go on), this morning I read on the very accurate John Hopkins website that about 285,000 people worldwide have been officially diagnosed with it thus far, 90,000 have recovered, and 12,000 have died. More specifically, in Massachusetts, of 410 diagnosed cases, one person has died, an 87-year-old man with many preexisting conditions.
What’s changed in the interim? A great deal, none of which is to be taken for granted. The idea of vaccination, for example, began with smallpox around 1800, took over a century to become a widespread practice, and smallpox was brought under worldwide control only in the 1970s. The virus causing the influenza of 1918 was identified only in the 1920s, an effective vaccine only in the 1930s. Vaccination against other diseases then became more and more common (e.g. polio in 1956, measles in 1963, chickenpox in the 1970s), but still arouses passionate opposition in some quarters. Penicillin was discovered around 1930, antibiotics from the 1940s onward, antivirals since the 1970s. We all too easily take for granted these and other great advances in science, medicine, and public health and policy like sanitation, clean water, and sterilization, which cumulatively led from an average lifespan in the US of around 47/48 a hundred years ago to around 78/79 today. We are also more recently the beneficiaries of inventions like computers and the internet, glorious inventions for the instantaneous dissemination of knowledge and truth (but also, as we have ruefully come to realize, fake news, previously known as lies, and a curiously widespread indifference to easily determinable facts). And what does this (hopefully) teach us? Change is inevitable, but progress is an option and never to be taken for granted. And even when there is progress, it’s usually three steps forward, two steps back.

PS. Questions welcome–just post in comments section.

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