A tale of two pandemics: What a difference a century makes

A tale of two pandemics: What a difference a century makes

Why We Wrote This

Some precautions have not changed since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. But the need for global cooperation to combat COVID-19 is clearer in our newly connected world.

Toby Melville/Reuters

A government public health information message is seen on a roadside sign, amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, in London, Jan. 4, 2021.


January 5, 2021

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At New Year’s 1919, the world was on the brink of a third wave of the deadly Spanish flu pandemic. There are some parallels with our current plight. But it’s the differences that a century has made which offer some hope.

Masks, social distancing, self-isolation – these are still the same. But the new instant connectivity means citizens worldwide are aware of the pandemic’s effects everywhere, and of how well governments are coping with them.

That has heightened the understanding that no country can successfully contain the pandemic, nor manage its economic fallout, on its own. It will take international cooperation – a commodity in short supply recently.

But there are signs it might be staging a comeback, in new moves to ensure 2 billion vaccine doses for the developing world, for example.

In the face of the 1919 flu, people did not turn in on themselves; they reached out to each other. That human instinct was sometimes fatal on an individual level. Today, on a global level, it could prove to be our saving grace.


There’s no shortage of items on the world’s to-do list as we enter 2021, but one will likely loom largest: the search for common ground to meet a raft of common challenges, at a time when powerful political currents have been pulling us apart.

So will multilateralism and cooperation start staging a comeback against the forces of narrow nationalism?

That won’t be easy, and it will be a while before we’ll know. Yet a trio of early tests will offer clues – stemming the spread of the pandemic, rolling out vaccines to turn it back, and dealing with its huge economic fallout.

And one hint that a new measure of cooperation might prove possible comes from an unlikely source: a Ghost of New Year’s Past, to misquote Charles Dickens.

The new year in question was way back in 1919, at the outset of the third wave of the Spanish flu pandemic. It was a moment with clear similarities to our own struggle with COVID-19. But less obvious – and potentially more telling for 2021 – are the differences between the two.

Is this America? A breach in peaceful transition of power.

I’ve been drawing on an expert guide to the pandemic world of a century ago: British science writer Laura Spinney, whose book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World” has kept me company over the self-isolated holiday period.

It’s not what you’d call easy reading. But it is an eloquently told, assiduously researched story of the 1918-19 pandemic that also paints a vivid portrait of the world as it then was. And it’s hard not to be struck by the differences between that world and our own – and how they might boost the chances of greater cooperation in the months ahead.

The similarities between the two pandemics, such as the impact of common-sense responses (heightened hygiene and social distancing, quarantines and isolation, for example), are intriguing. Still, it’s the differences that could carry the more important message for our post-pandemic future.

Even in the early 1900s, the world was interconnected, and the flu spread around the globe within a few months. Yet our world is far more immediately connected. People are more aware, often in real time, of the pandemic’s effects worldwide – and of how well their governments and others are doing to contain it.

In 1918, Ms. Spinney points out, “Telephones were rare. Long-distance communication was mainly by telegraph, or, in parts of China, carrier pigeon.” And, she might have added, there was no internet. No smartphones. No Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

In the past few days, for instance, people worldwide have been following detailed reports of the appearance in dozens of countries of COVID-19’s latest “British” mutation – a new reminder of the truly borderless nature of the pandemic.

So, too, with the country-by-country scorecard as developed nations begin their uneven rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, while the less-developed world seems likely to be left waiting for many months.

It has already become clear that the challenge of economic recovery is one that pretty much every country in the world will have to face.

And there’s another related difference between the world of New Year’s 1919 and ours in 2021: the greatly accelerated pace of political decisions.

Ms. Spinney records a range of political aftereffects from the pandemic a century ago. Yet many of them came only years later. In today’s world, our immediate access to information and the breadth and speed of communication put pressure on governments and other institutions to respond much more quickly.

So will nations join forces to deal with the global challenges in their New Year’s inboxes?

In the short term, there are obvious obstacles, not least the overriding priority of most governments to deal with the pandemic at home.

But the reality – inescapably and immediately clear in a way that wasn’t true in 1919 – is that no country can successfully cope with the pandemic and its aftershocks in isolation. If COVID-19 isn’t controlled elsewhere there’s the obvious risk it will return. If the pandemic’s crushing economic effects are left unaddressed in poorer nations, there’s every chance of a new surge of migrants seeking work and sustenance in wealthier countries.

If the emerging picture on vaccinations is any guide, there do seem to be prospects for at least some new sense of cooperation.

Nationalism remains a potent force. Individual governments are focused mainly on ensuring availability for their own countries. But the companies behind the vaccines have publicly acknowledged the need to provide sufficient, affordable supplies for all.

And COVAX – an initiative supported by governments in the developed world, multilateral institutions like the World Bank, and private donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – recently announced new agreements giving it access to nearly 2 billion vaccine doses for distribution in the developing world.

Whether this kind of cooperative approach will extend to economic recovery may hinge on another lesson from New Year’s 1919 – not so much about politics as about human nature.

When the Spanish flu began spreading, Ms. Spinney points out, “Your best chance of survival was to be utterly selfish. Assuming you had a place you could call home, the optimal strategy was to stay there … not answer the door … jealously guard your hoard of food and water, and ignore all pleas for help.

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“In general, however, people did not do this. They reached out to each other.”

That instinct was sometimes fatal on an individual level in 1919. In 2021, on a global level, it could prove to be our saving grace.

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