Speed Reads

History Lesson

What we can learn about year 3 of COVID from the 1918 influenza pandemic

The influenza pandemic of 1918 did not end in 1918 or even 1919 — but it did fade from the headlines even as the death toll mounted in 1920, the third year of the pandemic, The Washington Post recounts.

There are a lot of parallels between 1920 and now, at the beginning of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Post reports: Hopes for an end to the pandemic dashed by waves of infection and death from a new variant, Americans "weary of the limitations on daily life," and a reactionary lifting of "nearly all of the public health restrictions — such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and the closure of schools and churches."

The flu did eventually transition from a deadly pandemic to "a milder, more seasonal nuisance," the Post says, but in the meantime, "the country's experience a century ago suggests that we could be in for a lot more pain — especially if we let our guard down."

There are plenty of differences between COVID and the 1918 pandemic — influenza viruses and coronavirus are genetically distinct, for example; this coronavirus appears to mutate faster; but we now have "more-sanitary hospital conditions, better access to clean water, and — perhaps what is most notable — a vaccine," the Post notes. But some things are the same, like the limits to human endurance and the universal drive to know, as Tom Waits sings: "How's it going to end?" 

The answer to that is probably — probably — a critical mass of immunity from vaccines and previous infection. 

Still, "predictions of the virus's demise have been wrong every time," the Post reported later Sunday, in a look at the current state of the pandemic. "Most experts have given up trying. We are just one variant away from going through it all over again." That roller coast of uncertainty after five surges in two years has left a growing segment of the U.S. population "fatigued, frustrated, and frazzled," the Post adds, and determined to "simply live with the coronavirus and move on."

"We'd like to be done," said Maurice Schweitzer, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "The problem is, it's a virus. It's not getting tired."