By Kelsey Corley, Student Editor of The Kayseean
The Spanish flu was the deadliest pandemic in modern history. More than 675,000 Americans lost their lives due to the flu epidemic from 1918 to 1920, many more than the number of Americans who had died in World War I. Currently, the COVID-19 epidemic has been ravaging the US since February of 2020. To find out more about what we can learn about the current pandemic from the previous one, I sat down with Dr. Robin Feierabend, a retired physician specializing in family medicine, who was formerly with the Quillen College of Medicine at ETSU. The discussion yielded three important takeaways.
First, was the importance of public health preparedness. “We were very poorly prepared in both cases,” Dr. Feierabend said in criticism of the lack of funding for public health in the years leading up to both pandemics. We must face the inevitability of pandemics such as the one we are experiencing. In a presentation to the Bristol Historical Society, Dr. Feierabend highlighted that pandemics, despite all modern medical advancement, are still possible, if not probable. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; the best way to avoid these massive rates of death is to be prepared for another outbreak.
Second, transparency is key. Information about the Spanish Flu was largely covered up, to preserve morale and support for the Great War, or World War I. “There were several articles about how the influenza was nothing more than the usual flu, when in fact it was well known that it was much more devastating. The media was somewhat complicit in covering up the severity of the pandemic,” Dr. Feierabend explained. As a result of the lack of a national response, the administration of public health policies was left to state and local governments.
In such we have seen yet another example of history repeating itself. During the early months of the current Covid-19 pandemic, many people brushed off the severity of the disease in the same way, many claiming that it would disappear as the seasons changed. The coronavirus has also been largely politicized, in a different way. Some Americans see even the belief in the existence of the virus as an example of partisanship. It’s important to remember that scientific facts are not subject to popular vote.
Which brings us to the third point, denial. In this case, history shows that one of the best ways to spread a contagious disease is to first deny its existence and then deny its severity. Today’s ‘anti-maskers’ had early twentieth century counterparts; those calling for the removal of masks mandates and the reopening of their cities, often spreading the Spanish Flu even further in the process of their protest. Denial has casualties.
“I think it’s a lesson that we still haven’t learned,” says Feierabend. George Santayana, who unlike the 1918 flu was indeed from Spain, said that those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Apparently, after 100 years, not enough has changed.