OSU professor Christopher Nichols’ research into the 1918 flu pandemic is attracting a great deal of attention as people wonder what life after COVID-19 will look like.
OREGON, USA – Both health experts and historians say the “end” of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be a finish line. Some changes and influences can be felt for generations.
Oregon State University associate professor Christopher Nichols has done a lot of research into the 1918 flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide and about 675,000 people in the United States.
He said that since working on the COVID-1
“How do we understand our present moment, how do we engage in something like this?” Nichols described.
Both pandemics involved similar prevention strategies, such as closure policies, distancing, and masks.
Without robust health infrastructure and mass means of communication, however, people in 1918 did not know why so many died.
“People would not help their neighbors in some communities,” Nichols said. “They were really squeezed up by fear related to the flu.”
Incorrect information was also a problem, with some publications speculating about how the flu virus spread.
“A newspaper said … from the phone so people avoided phone calls,” Nichols explained.
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He said, however, that the political split seen under COVID-19 was much less present.
“In 1918, there really was no influenza policy,” Nichols said. “And it was not a deliberate misinformation campaign in the way we’ve seen perpetuated on social media. It’s really different, really insidious. And there’s no historical precedent to help us tackle it, except that we have to to keep talking about it. “
After the 1918 pandemic, health was never the same. Variants of the virus lasted.
“It gave rise to the seasonal flu as we know it … That’s almost exactly what’s going to happen to COVID,” Nichols said. “[What’s different now]the capacity to increase vaccines, which we have incredibly done, the fastest in world history. “
He said the era after COVID is likely to see similar cultural trends as the 1920s: renewed joy and appreciation for events and gatherings that were put on hold. In the 1920s, a society experienced a renaissance of music, dance, film and sporting events.
The same decade also serves as a warning, Nichols said.
“We can also see the downside – xenophobia, alienation, broken and fragmented politics.”
This included an increase in the Ku Klux Klan in national politics.
One factor in the American xenophobia trend at the time was the term “Spanish flu,” which suggested that some people were the source or more susceptible to getting sick. Nichols said that parallels with anti-Asian sentiment today with COVID.
“Pejoratives that have been expressed over this are a ‘China flu’.”
For many countries, including Germany and Canada, the pandemic of 1918 was a turning point in health care reform with the shift to more universal models.
“The United States has largely not set up federal structures to deal with health care or the next pandemic, so that will be an issue that people need to ask forward.”
He said many companies are likely to change marketing tactics to serve people’s newfound priorities after COVID, as advertisers did in 1920.
“Trying to live your life as fully as possible and you have to believe that some of it comes out of the pandemic.”
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