5 Lessons We Can Learn From Past Pandemics

Epicentre News • 03 February 2022

Coronavirus pandemics are normal historically speaking. In fact, most of the pandemics in the 20th and 21st centuries, have either been caused by an influenza virus or a coronavirus. So we really can learn some important lessons from these past pandemics. This segment draws direct inspiration from an article released by Colorado University at the start of the pandemic and updated by recent scholarly research.

Lesson No. 1: Names matter

Most people don’t know that the ‘Spanish Flu’ didn’t actually originate in Spain. Much like the Omicron variant didn’t originate in South Africa. At the time, Spain simply reported on the virus first. Much like omicron, researchers speculated that by labelling the virus after a ‘distant’ country, the world felt like the virus was far off and didn’t act on the virus that was in their own country.

We have seen this again and again with COVID-19, first by labelling it as the ‘China’ flu and then by blaming variants on South Africa, the UK, etc.

Lesson No. 2: Social distancing works

What we need to remember is that a pandemic is more than a virus in isolation. Our social climate plays a massive role. For example, the 1918 Spanish Flu (or H1N1 influenza pandemic) happened towards the end of World War 1. This meant that soldiers were returning home and spreading the virus around the world.

Just like COVID-19, our rapid globalisation has had a massive impact on this virus. Never before in human history have we travelled as much as quickly. A variant that is identified in South America can be in Europe 7hrs later.

That’s unprecedented, but the measures we can take to slow its spread haven’t changed in some crucial ways. If we look at what worked historically, the most effective way to prevent its spread was to isolate people from one another. Some communities did that and fared well. Others did not and suffered high death rates. It’s our choice if we choose to learn from this hard lesson in the past.

Lesson No. 3: Sometimes the strongest are hit the hardest

The influenza epidemic of 1918 was most likely to hit the young and healthy, felling people ages 15 to 45 with swift lethality. The reason for this was due to their own robust immune systems, which launched a torrent of virus-fighting molecules in an immune response known as a ‘cytokine storm’. These molecules latched on to lung tissue, causing lethal damage.

Many who die from COVID-19 suffer from hyper-inflammation with features of cytokine storm syndrome (CSS) and associated acute respiratory distress syndrome (Cron, 2021). Only anti-inflammatory approaches have improved survival in these patients (Cron, 2021).

This lesson is an important one because during this pandemic, many young people have felt protected from COVID-19 due to their strong immune systems. However, we do not yet know what puts people at risk or how our bodies will truly react to this virus. New drugs are coming out to treat threats like cytokine storm. But, in the words of Cron’s (2021) research article, “[k]nowing which cytokine or cytokines to target in severe COVID-19 pneumonia remains a conundrum”.

Lesson No. 4: Inoculation works

People have been vaccinating themselves in one way or another far back in human history.

During the smallpox epidemic that swept across North America from 1775 to 1782, Revolutionary War soldiers took an unusual approach to protecting themselves from the virus known as Variola major. In a process known as variolation (a.k.a. inoculation), they took virus-loaded material from an infected person’s smallpox pustule, carved an incision into the flesh of a healthy soldier, and rubbed it in. Recipients of this form of vaccination usually got the disease, so were quarantined. About 5% died. But most got a mild version of the smallpox disease.

Thankfully, we don’t need to go to such extreme measures to protect ourselves. But as in the past, vaccinations work. Although variants like omicron and delta have been shown to reinfect vaccinated individuals (Buchan, 2022) it is still highly effective at protecting people against serious cases of COVID-19 in real world settings (Zheng, 2022).

Lesson No. 5: Don’t blame the sick

Blaming people that are sick doesn’t protect us against catching the virus. It just divides us and spreads more fear. This has clearly been seen in the anti-asian hate crimes that have spread across the world as misguided people have blamed them for the pandemic. In America, hate crimes against Asian people rose by 361% and are clearly illustrated when a woman was pushed to her death in front of an oncoming train.

In South Africa, many people avoided eating at Chinese restaurants, driving local family businesses into financial ruin. We are very quick to blame the people who get sick, it’s happened over and over throughout history. But blaming people doesn’t stop a pandemic. Cooperation does. Smallpox is officially the first and only human infectious disease to be eradicated. We achieved that through working together.

This is an important lesson as more variants surface. Governments and their citizens need to think seriously about what behaviour they reward and what they punish.

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