The following column ran in the May 3, 2020 issue of The Beaumont Enterprise.
While there are major differences, during the CVID-19 pandemic we can find parallels between the situation we find ourselves now and the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918.
The 1918 pandemic killed at least 50 million people globally, with 675,000 in the U.S. While the novel coronavirus looks like it will fall well short of that mark, one could argue that advances in technology — and the accompanying quick dissemination of knowledge — are a major part of that.
We can argue about slow reaction times and lack of governmental preparedness, but the reality is that once the severity of the situation was realized, the populace was quickly alerted. We have internet and television to quickly lay out facts and information to alert people to isolation rules. There is no doubt this significantly slowed the spread.
In 1918, the only access to information was a newspaper, which would be printed the day after any announcements. There was no TV, no internet, not even radio — the first known radio news broadcast was not broadcast until Aug. 31, 1920 in Detroit. This meant the spread was rapid as people were infected before they were even aware of the issue.
How lucky we are to have access to medical information almost instantly. And yet, access to so much information seems to breed willful ignorance. People are choosing to dismiss information given by Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s leading virologists, in favor of misguided pronouncements by reality show charlatans like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.
Worse still, people armed only with google and some Facebook memes now fancy themselves to be expert virologists, actively rejecting information passed on by news outlets who, somehow, are accused of perpetrating the pandemic.
People are protesting stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules, as if it is some sort of rebellious act of freedom. More than a thousand people pack into a Louisiana church each Sunday under the pastor’s calls for “freedom of religion.”
Honestly, I am fine with these people congregating if the only people they are endangering are themselves. There’s something vaguely Darwinian about their determination to put themselves at risk like that. Unfortunately, they are also allowed back out in society, where their faith in their church is matched only by their willful disregard for social distancing.
Incidentally, the lawyer for Louisiana pastor Tony Spell and the Life Tabernacle Church has contracted the coronavirus and a church member has since died from it. The church member was an usher so who knows how many people he may have infected?
Maybe the church members would be willing to lock themselves in. Then they could worship all they want without infecting others. It would be like being on a cruise ship — no problems there.
Now there is a clamor to “re-start the economy.” This despite still having inadequate testing and no antibody testing to determine if someone has already had the disease. Or even knowing if previous exposure guarantees immunity against re-infection. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has decided to re-open restaurants May 1, provided they are 25 percent capacity. We cannot keep people off the streets, so how many will flout that rule?.
If we look at the 1918 pandemic, the first wave was in March but eased during the summer months as people practiced social distancing (or simply dying). When World War I finally ended, millions of people across the country joined victory parades, with 250,000 people packing together in Philadelphia alone. The resulting “second wave” killed more people than died in WWI.
There was little understanding of transmission of Spanish Flu. In fact, scientists assumed the influenza was caused by a bacteria (while viruses were discovered in the 1880s, it was not until the invention of the electron microscope in 1931 that images of a virus was seen). Viruses need a host to survive, so if the host does not transmit the disease during the life of the virus, then the virus will die. This is why ebola outbreaks were so short. The virus killed the host fast before it could be transmitted. COVID-19m unfortunately, has a longer life span.
This is why social distancing works. The COVID-19 has a finite lifespan, but can still survive on plastic or steel for seven days (influenza typically stays active on surfaces for only hours).
So now we are seeing protesters at various state capitals, brandishing their 2nd Amendment assault rifles and their right-wing paraphernalia, screaming about their right to mingle in public and, presumably, kill themselves or their loved ones. Others are champing at the bit to crowd onto beaches and parks.
Despite a world of information at our fingertips, people are refusing to learn from the lessons of 1918-19. That pandemic came in three waves. We have a chance to limit this to one, but seeing the attitudes and actions of the willfully ignorant, I am not hopeful.