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A Tale of Two Pandemics: The 1918 Spanish Flu Versus the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

Rachael Romano, Grade 11, Staff Writer


The only other pandemic in modern history that comes close to the mortality rate of COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu of 1918. It spread during World War I and killed about 30,000 people in New York.

Interestingly, the reaction to both pandemics has been similar.

In 1918, local governments took control of the situation by issuing mask mandates, which faced as much backlash as they do today. They also staggered business hours to avoid high-density situations. New York City Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland considered the possibility of closing schools in 1918, but they ultimately remained open with daily medical inspections.

The federal response, however, was delayed due to Woodrow Wilson's primary focus on World War I. Unlike today, there were no epidemiologists or national task forces to deal with the crisis. “There wasn’t a good comprehensive national strategy that addressed the issue. Wilson even came down with the flu in 1919 but we had no idea,” said Elizabeth Rice, a global history teacher at the High School of American Studies.

The benefit of this, however, was that the 1918 pandemic was not nearly as politicized as COVID-19. “Political parties chose to make COVID-19 a partisan issue, for their own reasons, which you would not have seen Woodrow Wilson do in 1918,” said AP US History teacher Arnold Mansdorf.

In comparison to neighboring cities, NYC fared better in 1918 than cities like Boston and Philadelphia. According to the National Institute of Health, “New York City's excess death rate per 1,000 was reportedly 4.7, compared with 6.5 in Boston and 7.3 in Philadelphia.” New York City recovered after three waves of Influenza, spanning across six months.

Today, America has much better medical care than it did in 1918. Despite the absence of widespread treatment, two vaccines were authorized to combat COVID-19 in one year: the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. “I think doctors have become better at treating the virus, and it’s a miracle that now we have a vaccine, which is an improvement over 1918,” said Ms. Rice.

While there were many vaccines created in 1918, few were effective. According to the National Institute of Health, “the medical profession had at the time no consensus on what constituted a valid vaccine trial, and it could not determine whether these vaccines did any good at all.”

Additionally, today, COVID-19 resources can be found with the click of a button. During 1918, information was spread by newspapers, local health officials, or word of mouth.

The absence of information in 1918 also meant the absence of misinformation, which now is a prominent issue. Regulations in 1918 were more likely to be followed because it was seen as the patriotic thing to do. The lack of contradicting news sources led to a quicker national recovery from the 1918 pandemic.

The greater access to resources today is helpful to keep people informed, yet also allows for the advice of health officials to be flouted. “We live in an age when people are supposed to have more access to information and be more educated, but as a country, this has sadly made us more ignorant and susceptible to being manipulated, which is tragic,” said Mr. Mansdorf.

Because of the increase in medical care today and overall societal change, little that was done in 1918 can be implemented to control COVID-19. The objective of regulations are the same as they have always been — stop the spread — but now there is a vaccine.

Art by Rachel Wong, Grade 11

Art By Caprice Turchiano, Grade 12

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