What the 1918 Flu Pandemic Teaches Us About COVID-19

  COVID-19 might be new, but the societal issues it has brought up are oddly familiar.   

An article from the Oregon State University (OSU) Newsroom focused on the similarities between the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic and COVID-19, such as the disproportionate effect on marginalized communities, debates on masks, lack of scientific agreement and harmony, and pushes for more hand washing as well as the practice of social distancing.   

In an attempt to offer historical insights that may allow future generations a window into what is happening today, a group of historians and Progressive Era academics conducted a round-table conversation, which was published in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, concerning the response to the current pandemic.  

Chris Nichols, director of OSU’s Center for the Humanities and an associate professor of history in the university’s College of Liberal Arts, explained that the 1918-19 influenza pandemic was the cause for a lot of suffering and loss by people globally.   

There was a total of 675,000 deaths in the U.S. and an estimated 50 million worldwide due to that pandemic. Nichols highlights that it’s vital to see these numbers in a more personal way – to learn about the people behind the numbers, so that we can better grasp what we are currently trying to avoid in regards to this pandemic.   

Socioeconomic disparities during the 1918-19 pandemic were stark, just as they are during the COVID-19 crisis, although there is inadequate data from the 1918-19 time period so historians don’t know the full effects on marginalized communities. It is known that the U.S.’s response to the influenza pandemic worsened existing inequalities – at that time African Americans had an average life expectancy of 38.9 years, while white Americans had an expectancy of 55.1 years.   

Nancy Bristow, co-author of the journal article and history professor at the University of Puget Sound, wrote: “In 2020, though legal segregation is gone, we are seeing the disparate landing of this pandemic following the same patterns of the earlier pandemic, with people of color, especially African Americans, Latinx Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Pacific Islanders in our communities suffering hospitalization and death at rates far above those of white Americans.” 

 Other topics in the conversation included bias toward European and U.S.-centric narratives of the pandemic, unstable federal leadership during each pandemic, the evolution of medical understanding of influenza and COVID-19, the state of the current national healthcare system, and how we can learn from the 1918 pandemic without relying on it as a blueprint for our future.  

As of Thursday, Aug. 13, there were 20.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide, with 749,000 deaths. In the state of Oregon, there were 22,186 confirmed cases and 384 deaths.   

You can read the full 1918 influenza pandemic/COVID-19 conversation here.   

By Cara Nixon