• Maggie Koller

Covid-19- Lessons from 100 years ago...

by Maggie Koller and Maddison Pryor.

It’s at this point in the quarantine mayhem of coronavirus and social distancing measures that most of us are feeling the brunt of cabin fever. Bedrooms and sofas have become our offices, and colleagues and classmates have morphed into pixelated people on a screen. When we’re not working, Netflix and Zoom have become popular substitutes for a social life.

The number of coronavirus cases recently amounted to 1 million; schools are miniature ghost towns and footprint markings on supermarket floors demand we stay apart – for our own sake. Most of us have never seen anything like the current global situation before. For Myrtle Hooper from Swan Hill, Victoria in Australia, interviewed by The Guardian this past March, the apocalyptic scenes are reminiscent of an early memory. 107 this year, Hooper was only seven when the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 broke out just months from the end of World War One. One of the worst human pandemics in history, the flu strain would come to infect a quarter of the global population, 500 million people at the time, in an era when centralised, international health bodies such as the World Health Organisation simply did not exist. The death toll officially sits at 20 million, but estimates extend upwards to 50 million. Just to break that number down, as we have been thrown so many statistics over the past few weeks, in comparison, nine million people died throughout the entirety of World War One – 4 years of combat against 2 years of a pandemic.

How did it evolve?

How a sickness could possibly evolve into a global pandemic is a question we also ask today as we track the spread of COVID-19 – from Wuhan to Venice to New York City to our own suburban Sydney towns. In 1918, however, World War One not only engendered horrific outcomes on the battlefield, but quite possibly served as a vessel which delivered the flu across international borders. Ironically enough, many cite the end of the war as the pandemic’s starting block. As armies were demobilised and soldiers sent home, the illness seeped into various parts of the world along major transportation routes. Battle-scarred countries, only just beginning their slow recovery, were in no condition to face another global crisis, especially Germany, Russia and France, who were left with millions of casualties already occupying every available hospital. The flu outbreak exacerbated an already dire situation – overcrowding medical camps and inevitably promoting superinfection, or infection which occurs on top of an earlier infection due to poor hygiene.

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It's Globalisation ......

Today it is globalisation which has been the catalyst for the current pandemic. We have become connected like never before in history. Trade, movement of labour, technology and transportation facilitates swift movement of people across international borders and across the world. The common denominator between then and now is the feeling of overwhelm in an existential sense as well as lack of preparedness in a practical sense. Today just like 100 years ago there was no vaccine and a severe lack of essential supplies. But back then, misinformation and lack of public awareness was dire. Politically, wartime media censorship meant that people had little to no idea of the larger picture, no idea as to how many regions the flu strain had already devastated. Governmental coordinations were slow and ineffective, their negligence unravelling long-term social and economic consequences. Today of course the opposite is true. We are bombarded with news coverage. Our screens provide us with endless graphs, stories and statistics. Our government in Australia has been doing an admirable job compared to other countries at containing the crisis. The restrictions to out daily life, social interactions and curtailing of our regular activities will be around for a while longer still.

The dire threat is not just towards human health but also that of the economy. Many people have sadly lost their jobs as businesses have lost customers. The economy in 2020 is close to recession. Back in 1918 however it was the opposite effect. What began to occur globally were mass labour shortages. Strangely enough, unlike other strains, this particular influenza outbreak most significantly affected those who bolstered the workforce – individuals between 15 and 40 years of age. Whilst on one hand, this situation caused an alarming insufficiency within the labour force, it also drove increases to hourly wages which had already risen with less skilled workers following the war. Today of course it is the seemingly the elderly most affected.

In 1918 the social atmosphere lacked cohesiveness and was also prone to deterioration. Much like the panic shoppers of today, some people reacted negatively to the situation. Governments did attempt to enforce social distancing, yet inadequate communication 100 years ago fostered division and paranoia rather than camaraderie. Fast forward several decades despite the toilet paper hoarding and occasional public spats seen on television for the most part there is a strong kindness wave happening. People are looking out for each other by sending well wishes on social media and positive broadcasts on You-tube channels. Considering a well worn pandemic path what can society and policymakers learn from the past?

The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-20 affected the countries of Europe and North America most strongly. As soldiers returned from World War one, many of them with already weakened immune systems carried the virus with them back home to their respective countries. Australia was not spared. Some 13,000 Australians would ultimately be killed by the Spanish flu.

Where did it begin?

Most interestingly, then as now the virus is thought or have originated in China.

In 2014 National Geograhic Magazine reported about a theory that the 1918 pandemic originated in China of all places. According to records uncovered by author Mark Humphries in his book "The Last Plague" (University of Toronto Press 2013), Chinese labourers were transported via Canada to France to fill labour shortages. The workers originally from the countryside in China were required for manual work such as digging trenches, repairing roads, railways tracks, fixing vehicles and equipment and unloading trains. In total some 90,000 Chinese workers were sent to the Western Front to help out with the war effort on the Allied side. According to Humphries from a cohort of 25 000 men about 3000 ended up with flu like symptoms in medical quartantine. However because of inherent racist attitudes the mens symptoms were sadly dismissed. "At the time, because of racial stereotypes their illness was blamed on "Chinese laziness" and Canadian doctors did not take the workers' symptoms seriously. By the time the laborers arrived in northern France in early 1918, many were sick, and hundreds were soon dying." (1).www.livescience .com.

First and foremost, priority must always be placed upon the containment of the disease. In 1918, the widespread movement of troops across borders as they returned home was what effectively permitted a local illness to become a global pandemic. The city of Philadelphia inadvertently ushered in the pandemic by foolishly hosting a massive parade for returning soldiers.

Following the outbreak 1918, it was evident that US cities which did enforce social distancing measures suffered significantly lower death rates. Current travel restrictions globally and border shutdowns are working to build upon these past successes. Firstly implementing a ban on mass gatherings, Australia has already shut its borders to non-residents and non-citizens, further imposing fees for those who leave their homes for non-essential trips. Although this isolation may bring about unwanted stress and discomfort, the number of new cases in Australia are decreasing with each passing day.

Preparation is key

Early, efficient preparation is another lesson to be learnt from 1918. Even the 14 days of self-isolation suggested for suspected cases will affect the economy to a certain degree. As quarantines extend to entire countries such as Italy, a financial crisis, or even a drawn out recession, seems inevitable. This is where the government must glean from past discoveries – cities that intervened earlier in their encounters with the Spanish flu actually witnessed an increase in economic activity after the pandemic receded.

Some businesses have already been forced to let go of staff due to a reduction in profit, or have been shut down as a result of government policy, leaving some without income and yet still juggling rent and utility bills. In Australia the Jobkeeper payment of $1500 per fortnight per employee aims to help small business retain workers. A temporary fortnightly payment of $550 is available for people who have been affected by Covid-19.

In certain situations employees are allowed to access their superannuation.

Furthermore, we have other systems of support. Social media, much maligned in recent years because of trolling, fake news and setting unrealistic expectations has become an important lifeline for many. Social media and online connection is not only providing entertainment, but emotional support as we remain isolated. According to Standard Ethics, “in the emergency resulting from the spread of the Covid-19 virus, [Italy] has re-established a remarkable solidarity and united purpose. […] It is possible that by courageously overcoming this difficult test, a beautiful nation like Italy, will rediscover its vigour and optimism.” Viral videos shared online showcase condominium communities gathering on separate balconies with music and strobe lights to replace city night life and even neighbours setting up an outdoor theatre that can be enjoyed by two families despite the fence between their homes. Celebrities have posted about they social isolation experience bolstering that sense of community, that we indeed are all in this together.

Although there are similarities between what occurred in 1918 and today’s crisis, the social, economic and medical reality has advanced to a state which we can rely on for greater, more adequate preparations and solutions. But of course, to reach that point of recovery, we have to endure a little bit of cabin fever, and as we work our way through this process, it’s important to remember not only our own physical health but our mental wellbeing. TV will get boring quickly, no matter how many episodes of "The Crown" or or "Game of Thrones" you can sit through. We NEED all the good vibes we can muster at this time. Get out for fresh air whenever possible. Even if you are holed up at home wearing your cheerful sunhat in the yard whilst gardening or to walk your dogs sure to put a smile on your face. Or grab your comfy body hugging hobo bag to bring to the shops with you – adding style to your looks and delivering just the right feel good moment.

From the policies our governments have already put in place, it is clear that we are definitely more equipped to handle this situation than we were a century ago, so be kind to yourself, take time for exercise and wellbeing activities and make sure to stay connected. We’ll get through this together. How are you all coping with this "new normal"?

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