How does the COVID pandemic compare to past pandemics?

Buckley Report

Not all pandemics are alike, but they often play out in similar ways.

Those who lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed nearly 700,000 Americans, and those who lived through the polio pandemic of the late 1940s and 50s should see things in the country’s reaction to both that they saw again with the COVID pandemic over the past 18 months.

“What they would have found familiar in our response today is that moment of some people coming together,” said Glenn Perkins, the Curator of Community History at the Greensboro Historical Museum. “For example, when there was a declaration of shortages for personal protective equipment, people would come together. They would stitch masks and make the face shields.”

Many of which from this most recent pandemic are in a temporary exhibit at the museum.

Not everything is the same – the US has seen resistance in some quarters to getting the COVID-19 vaccines, whereas in the 1950s, when Jonas Salk was able to create the country’s first polio vaccine, “a large group of people…were eager to get their children vaccinated and protected,” Perkins said.

There are also lessons learned from every pandemic.

“After (the Spanish Flu pandemic of) 1918, suddenly people start to take public health more seriously, and there is a big rush to build more hospitals,” said Sarah Thuesen, an assistant history professor at Guilford College.

“Having looked at the areas of the country in 1918 that really did try to take public health measures seriously where masking was mandated and as best as possible, really required, where there was more shutting down of schools and other institutions – and those areas tended to fare better as far as mortality rates,” Thuesen said.

Guilford County had North Carolina’s first health department, which was started in 1911. But in 1918, the federal government was really a small influence in most people’s lives.

‘“It really wasn’t until FDR who, of course, spearheaded the fight against polio in its earliest days that folks began to feel the presence of the federal government more in their lives,” Thuesen said.

Guilford College had its share of Spanish Flu cases, but they also created one of the first contact tracing systems. See it in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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