Your questions, answered
“What does the current virus have in common with the flu of 1918? And how does it differ?” — Jean in Missouri
Well, the two pandemics have too many differences to list in this newsletter. The influenza virus of 1918 came from an entirely different genetic family than the 2019 coronavirus and attacked the body in different ways. The flu started spreading during World War I, on a planet with no air travel or global commerce to speak of and still managed to advance around the entire world.
Scientists understood very little about viruses at the time, and doctors had none of the advanced medical equipment used to treat covid-19 patients today. The 1918 flu spread for more than a year and killed an estimated 50 million people, or more than 2 in 100 people, including more than half a million Americans — far more than even the most dire models predict covid-19 will kill.
Yet, the U.S. response to both pandemics was disturbingly similar in many ways.
Our history team wrote today that many states initially responded to the 1918 outbreak with severe restrictions on daily life — telling residents to wear masks and shuttering nonessential businesses, much like today.
Then, also much like today, those restrictions were rolled back later in the year, when the war ended and Americans felt like celebrating. “Pretty much every city that we examined reported on huge crowds immediately congregating downtown in stores and cafes and theaters and bowling alleys,” a medical historian at the University of Michigan told The Post.
We wrote at the top of this edition about Memorial Day weekend crowds massing in many states that have recently rolled back stay-at-home orders. A century ago, those celebrations were followed by a resurgence of the virus, which killed more Americans in the fall of 1918 than it had during the initial wave of infections.
Are we repeating the mistakes of 1918?