AMU Emergency Management Original Public Safety

Are We Repeating Lessons from the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic?

By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

In emergency management, we often discuss “lessons learned” from various past incidents so we can create better plans, tighten collaboration among agencies, and work out fundamental resource issues that might have been at the core of these issues when the incident occurred. Lessons learned are often well regarded in public safety and often those in leadership positions will incorporate them in their instructions.

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But sometimes, lessons learned are lost in the shuffle. It can be difficult to incorporate lessons learned when no two emergencies are the same. Major disasters often unfold differently, and different players will often be involved. Budgets shift, and so do the people in a community changing the dynamics of how the disaster will unfold.

Some Lessons from 1918 Are Applicable to Today’s Pandemic

A Public Health Report highlights a number of “lessons learned” about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Interestingly, they are similar to some of the issues we’re seeing today with the COVID-19 pandemic and transmission prevention. But if some of these “lessons learned” are similar to what we’re seeing today, how could such important concepts get lost in the shuffle?

The Public Health Report cited several important lessons from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide within a two-year period. Among the several important lessons learned from the 1918 pandemic was the need to limit crowds in confined spaces. The Report also noted that many people were upset with the containment policies and many rebelled against them.

Also noted was the municipal requirement in Minneapolis and St. Paul for all residents to wear masks. However, with COVID-19 cases surging in some states, large numbers of people in our deeply divided society are refusing to wear masks.

Why Aren’t Certain Lessons Learned?

If these lessons were learned and duly noted in the 2007 Public Health Report, why are these issues still relevant in the current pandemic?

The answer can be complex or simple. People don’t like to be restricted, even if there are public health concerns at the core of the restrictive policies. Additionally, illnesses can seem to be invisible if symptoms don’t show for a few days. So the threat of COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be present initially. There was a lot of pushback in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic similar to some of the pushback we’re seeing now with the current coronavirus. Could we simply say that human nature sometimes makes us repeat the past?

Additionally, we understand from political science that public policies can be difficult to apply to everyone. Some public health restrictions contradict what we understand about public policy. For example, policies that might work in Connecticut might not apply to people in Texas. Thus, it can be difficult to find one-size-fits-all policies. Where the COVID-19 disease is concerned, ordering everyone to wear a mask seems simple. But for people with chronic breathing problems and autistic children, it may be very difficult for them to comply.

So, if we are simply repeating the lessons learned from a 100-year-old pandemic, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out new methods to get the general public on board when restrictions are problematic?

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at American Military University and American Public University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison serves as an Intermittent Emergency Management Specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, as At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and as Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. She is also chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds multiple graduate degrees.

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