Taking a page from the past

Column by Andrea W. Doray
Posted 7/30/20

Taking a page from the past” is the headline of an article in the Summer 2020 University of Northern Colorado alumni magazine (Go Bears!). In this “From the Vault” feature, author Nate Haas, …

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Taking a page from the past


Taking a page from the past” is the headline of an article in the Summer 2020 University of Northern Colorado alumni magazine (Go Bears!). In this “From the Vault” feature, author Nate Haas, class of 2004, reports on the lessons of the 1918 influenza outbreak – which actually continued to devastate the global population until late 1919 – for the current age of COVID-19. Haas shares material from history professor Fritz Fischer, who teaches about pandemics at UNC.

Photos from the 1919 UNC yearbook reproduced in the magazine show students wearing masks and standing in front of closed facilities … images, as Haas notes, relatable today.

Scientists and historians note that the so-called “Spanish Flu” actually first emerged in soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, during World War I (then called the “Great War, of course, because who in their wildest imaginations would believe there could ever be a second world war?). Rather, as professor Fischer explains, Spain was a neutral country free of censorship to report on this crisis.

The 1918 flu spread through Fort Riley soldiers who transmitted the disease when they deployed overseas. As troops returned, influenza was ravaging Europe and another wave then surged through the U.S. As the flu pandemic came to an end worldwide, those infected had either died or developed immunity.

UNC’s Fischer notes that U.S. doctors and policymakers had just begun to rely on science during the 1918 crisis. In fact, Fischer says that two areas of such learning should be an advantage during the current pandemic: “We know the science and we know how coronaviruses work.”

In 2008, nearly 90 years after the 1918 pandemic, researchers discovered that the influenza weakened bronchial tubes and lungs, often leading to bacterial pneumonia – frightening similarities to today’s version of the coronavirus. A vaccine was finally developed in the 1940s.

According to professor Fischer, censorship of influenza information during WWI aggravated tension and arguments about the severity of the crisis. With limited access to accurate data, the media were accused of “overdramatizing and overexaggerating.”

Sound familiar?

If there’s one thing we know for sure about COVID-19, it’s that there’s a lot we still don’t know. States are left to collect and report data according to their own specific calculations. And, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tried to make sense of such disparate information, the CDC itself is now cut out of the process.

Consider, on the other hand, what professor Fischer, as reported by Haas, shares in his classroom … that by combining what we know about science and the virus with technology that connects us and government action people can accept, we can slow down the spread or flatten the curve.

My friends and neighbors, despite conflicting data and reporting about Covid-19, our curve is going the wrong way by any measure. Please, for the sakes of those you love and those you don’t even know, wear a mask, stay socially distant, and wash your hands. (I know, I know, I repeat myself.)

When I hear comparisons of the catastrophic death rate of the 1918 flu to the lower percentages of COVID-19 so far, I can only be grateful that, with 102 years of medical advancement and eventual access to needed resources, we will control the coronavirus this time around.

And, perhaps if we do, our own “pages from the past” will reflect a much superior outcome.

Andrea Doray is a writer with a shout out to Nate Haas for his reporting of professor Fischer’s classroom lesson, and a reminder for everyone to get a flu vaccine this year. Contact Andrea at a.doray@andreadoray.com.


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