Coronavirus and Influenza: What We Can Learn from a Past Pandemic

By: Hayden C. Cordova | Managing Editor


Due to the global reach of the coronavirus pandemic, a number of medical concepts have entrenched themselves into the common vernacular and people’s lifestyles, such as social distancing, flattening the curve, and wearing masks. However, with rising cases nationwide, calls for stricter medical guidelines have increased over recent weeks.

On July 15, in the wake of a nearly 50% increase in COVID-19 cases statewide over a two week period according to the U.S. News and World Report, Governor Kay Ivey announced a statewide ordinance for Alabama mandating that masks be worn in public spaces at all times.  With the ordinance remaining in place until July 31, many are left anxious and polarized as to what to expect from the future.  How long until the number of cases decreases under newly implemented guidelines?  Will stricter guidelines even prevent a second wave?  Will political divides on the issue only get worse?

Issues such as these are not completely new to the world.  Consider the Spanish Flu of 1918, one of the deadliest influenza pandemics of the 1900’s.  According to the CDC, nearly one-third of the world population carried the virus over its two-year length, with an estimated 50 million deaths.  Examining how the influenza pandemic was handled, the similarities between governmental procedures then and now are remarkably close.  Like the coronavirus, influenza is transmitted through airborne droplets from infected carriers coughing, and the CDC states that “control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”

Alabama’s recent mask ordinance can easily be compared to the measures San Francisco took to stem the influenza cases in their city.  The Influenza Encyclopedia explains that after cases in San Francisco reached staggering numbers over the course of two days, the city enacted quarantine, closed public areas, and required wearing masks in public with a violation fine.  The wartime patriotism from WWI carried over into pandemic procedures, and “the wearing of a mask immediately became a symbol of wartime patriotism…calling into question the patriotism of those who refused.”  While San Francisco suffered immensely under the virus, it was widely considered one of the fastest acting cities to enact and maintain policies throughout the pandemic’s waves, which, most importantly, decreased the number of new cases in the span of a month.

What can be learned from a 102-year-old pandemic today?  First, enacting a city or statewide mask ordinance can significantly decrease the number of new cases in a pandemic.  Second, that adhering to those guidelines is equally important as enacting them. San Francisco experienced a period of declining new cases, but prematurely reopened and experienced a spike in new cases prior to the second wave. Third, that although the war conditions of the time brought a distinct patriotic mindset to the way people combat the virus, wearing masks today can still be viewed as a social duty for people to adhere to.  But ultimately, understanding the ways that America has handled the influenza pandemic of the past can give perspective on the choices being made today to combat coronavirus, and allow us to determine whether such choices are the right ones to make.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.