Heroism, humour, and community: parallels between Covid-19 and pandemics of the past

It was only recently that Dr Hannah Mawdsley was working on a collaborative doctoral partnership (CDP) scheme on the effects and impact of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that was responsible for the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people between 1918-1920.

Hannah was also involved in co-curating an exhibition to mark the centenary of this tragedy, which focused on nursing during the crisis as well as exploring the experiences of those that lived and died at the time.

And now, over 100 years later, as the world tries to grapple with another global pandemic, Hannah reflects on some of the unsettling similarities between the two outbreaks.

Not all historians have the unsettling experience of seeing their research come to life. Back in 2018, during research for my AHRC CDP PhD, I was involved in various TV, radio, and newspaper pieces about the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, as the pandemic’s centenary that year was considered a timely moment to revisit the memory of that global event. In many interviews, I stressed how important it was to remember how we experienced such a pandemic – not least because it was a matter of when, not if, another global pandemic emerged. I was fully convinced of this fact, particularly in light of Jeremy Farrar (Director of the Wellcome Trust)’s comments to me in a 2018 interview that, despite a century of medical innovation, the world remained ‘exquisitely vulnerable’ to a novel virus.

It turns out there’s something very different about knowing something to be a true possibility, and it actually happening. The current Covid-19 pandemic has brought the memories of the ordinary people I researched to life, in a deeper way that hadn’t happened beforehand. I am not a medical professional, and have tried to steer clear of debates of the technical similarities and differences between the Spanish Flu and Covid-19. However, some real parallels keep surfacing between the way that ordinary people coped then, and are coping now, with the threat of a pandemic and its effect on their lives.

It is clear that, despite decades of scientific progress, we still rely on the same social interventions like isolation and quarantine that we did a century ago. During the Spanish Flu, there was no real hope for a cure: researchers weren’t able to see viruses until more than a decade later, let alone forge an effective vaccine. Despite our greater knowledge of viruses now, it still takes many months to create a vaccine which matches a novel virus, and likely more than a year before it can be rolled out worldwide.

In the absence of a cure for the Spanish Flu, it was down to both governments and individuals to slow the spread of the disease by enforcing – or not – quarantines and isolation. Some authorities, like those of Australia and of American Samoa, got it right, with comparatively few casualties. Others, like that of Philadelphia in the United States, got it wrong – they relaxed restriction of movement too early and even held a Liberty Loan parade in September 1918 to raise funds for the war, against public health expert advice. The resultant surge of flu deaths overwhelmed hospitals and mortuaries, and led to the highest mortality rate of any city in the United States. Today we will see mounting pressure on governments to relax social isolation measures too early, and yet such action would risk repeating Philadelphia’s Spanish Flu experience.

Camp Funston, at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

Now, as then, much of a pandemic’s impact is determined by the actions of individuals. Many personal memories of the Spanish Flu bear a tragic resonance with our experience so far with Covid-19. In both cases, overwhelmed medical staff and public services, mass graves, and blame are matched by heroism, humour, and a renewed sense of community. One of the most striking experiences for me has been seeing pictures of the Nightingale hospital that has been set up within the 02 Arena in South-East London, and comparing it with a famous photograph taken during the Spanish Flu at Fort Riley, Kansas. A picture, as they say, paints a thousand words, and for me the similarities between the two images underline the stark parallels and unsettling continuities between our experiences of the two outbreaks.

In 2018, I co-curated an exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. This exhibition, entitled Spanish Flu: Nursing During History’s Deadliest Pandemic, highlighted the devastating facts and figures as well as the human cost of that outbreak. It is sadly ironic that, like many other small museums, the Florence Nightingale Museum is now facing financial difficulties as a result of this pandemic, in a year that should have been one of celebration for them – the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. It remains to be seen whether the exhibition’s title will remain valid, in light of the continued escalation of Covid-19’s global death toll.

To find out more about Hannah’s research, follow her on Twitter at @hannahmawdsley

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