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Historian offers 1918-19 lessons for pandemic

Oregon State University, College of Engineering

Christopher Nichols, an associate professor of history and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, recently collaborated with several other historians to compile a conversation about the historical lessons of the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 and its parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nichols has these initial thoughts: 

  • “We know a lot of things from 1918-19 that we can apply now, that we should’ve applied in February or March, that definitively work, but they need strong federal leadership to impose on a nation state that’s as vast as this one.”
  • “In and of itself, the suffering was horrific. By being attuned to the suffering and death, and to the specific types of responses, you can learn some lessons, but don’t use it without that attention first.” The number of deaths during the influenza pandemic — 675,000 in the U.S., an estimated 50 million worldwide — obscure as much as they illuminate, he said: “Learn about the families, the personal stories, get a sense of the social history, rather than just wielding the numbers in abstract.”
  • “By the end of 1918, by winter or by December, basically every community in the U.S. had been hit in some significant way. In some places, there was so much death and really bad disease that there was no way to avoid that suffering – the personal stories were very obvious and poignant. … I think the historical comparison is that – when it was so overwhelming in fall 1918, virtually everybody was affected, and therefore you couldn’t have people ignoring it in the way they do now. Though, there were certainly people who said, Let’s get back to business as usual; certainly people who refused masks.”
  • “Influenza affected everyone young and old. But it disproportionately killed the healthiest among us -- the all-American 22-year-old football player, the strongest lumberjack, a healthy young mom. People in their prime were getting struck down very quickly. So, the fear that animated people in the fall of 1918 was qualitatively different.”
  • In teaching history of the era, “Global flu as something experienced by more people worldwide than World War I gets subsumed in World War I.”
  • “In a decade, will people talk more about the political leadership of the Trump administration, worst recession since the Great Depression, and less about the pandemic? My suspicions would be yes. … If the past is prologue here, then 1918-19 pandemic is likely to be mirrored in our future histories in the 2020-ish pandemic – thinking about the politics, not so much the public health.” 

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