In different contexts, public responses differ in two pandemics

By Daniel Dunaieff

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At the end of World War I, the Spanish flu caused the world to focus on the same kinds of measures people used to protect themselves, including wearing masks and social distancing.

At the time, pharmaceutical companies could not produce vaccines and boosters against the H1N1 flu virus that killed 50 million people worldwide, including 650,000 people in the United States.

A family and their cat during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
Public domain photo

History professors at Stony Brook University have described a decidedly different time over 100 years ago and the reaction of the American people to the public health crisis.

The armistice to end the war was signed amid the pandemic, said Nancy Tomes, a distinguished professor in the Department of History at Stony Brook University.

“Our noble dough boys were coming back after saving Western Civilization,” Tomes said. There was no pointing fingers to blame anyone for the difficulties ahead. The American public has recognized it as a “disease that our brave boys brought home. It is your obligation to take care of these soldiers.

People who did not do their part to help heal the military and reduce the threat were considered “lazy”. When public health officials in New York City asked workers to stagger subway ride times, people “weren’t supposed to make a fuss because it’s war,” said Volumes.

During the Spanish flu, people did not express partisan politics on public health issues.

Contrast that with modern times, where an anti-federal government ideology has been building for decades, said Paul Kelton, professor and Gardiner Chair in American History at Stony Brook.

“It’s been brewing since the 1980s,” Kelton said. The COVID pandemic has come at a time when this mistrust of the federal government “has peaked.” Today, “we have a national media culture where we focus on the federal government” and, at the same time, the country has an anti-federal government ideology that drives much of the American population,” he said. he declares.

Kelton, whose expertise includes studying Native American history, suggested that several tribes seized the opportunity to get vaccinated, in part because of the encouraging response from tribal leaders.

The Navajo, for example, who have a well-deserved skepticism of the federal government, have high vaccination rates because the tribal government has taken over this public health effort.

“When people are empowered at the state level and at the local level, rather than the federal government coming in and doing it, that makes a difference,” Kelton said.

Indeed, communities that have resisted vaccines and public health measures during the current COVID crisis include areas with large rural white populations.

To be sure, historians recognize that the specifics of each pandemic, from the source of the public health threat to the political and cultural context in which the threat occurs, vary widely.

Recalling a saying in public health, Kelton said, “If you’ve seen a pandemic, you’ve seen a pandemic.” This suggests that lessons or experiences within one public health threat may not necessarily apply to another, particularly if the mode of transmission, symptoms, or threat severity are all different.

“The lesson of history is to expect the unexpected when you’re dealing with germs,” ​​Kelton said. “New germs are hitting people in different circumstances. We live in conditions different from those of the past.

What pandemics typically do, Kelton said, is expose the cracks in society.

Part of what the study of other pandemics suggests is the need for opportunities to live healthier lives among those who are impoverished or feel disenfranchised.

“If nothing changes and access to health care [remains as it is]we are going to repeat this one more time,” Kelton said.

Basic access to better nutrition can help fight the next pandemic, reducing the disproportionate toll some people face amid a public health threat, he said.

“Things like making sure homeless people can get into a homeless shelter and not infect each other, the cogs of keeping people healthy, we’ve overlooked. “, Tomes added.