What the 1918 flu pandemic tells us about social distancing

As the world sees armed protesters in the United States demanding an end to “shelter-in-place” orders, reads stories of shopping malls in Brazil reopening as their president joins anti- lockdown protests, and hears laissez-faire voices call for their governments to “ease” restrictions as soon as possible, we might do well to look back at parallel moments in history. Inrecent days, striking images of scientific charts and graphs from the 1918 influenza pandemic have been making the rounds on social media. Though these hand-drawn diagrams may lookarchaicto our eyes, they offer a clear rebuke to those moving too quickly to step away from the public health restrictions so many around the world are currently enduring. In lateAugust a second, more deadly wave crashed on to the shores of the US, France and Sierra Leone almost simultaneously and rushed from there to sicken the entire world. The bacteriological revolution of the 19th century gave American medical and public health authorities confidence, though, that this was a contagious disease. Nationally, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) encouraged education and, if needed,a range of controls on Americans’ behaviour. The USPHS printed millions of pamphlets providing information on the disease and recommending precautions for avoiding and treating the illness. On 28 September it hosted a massive kickoff parade for the Fourth Liberty Loan, the bonddrive used to support the American war effort. Morguesoverflowing withthedead, a desperate shortage of coffins and a resort to mass graves resulted from the city’s failure to move early to prepare. Social distance and empty spaces: UK life under lockdown (Photos) Following the rapid spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) throughout the world in 2020, the U.K. has been responding by implementing increasingly stringent measures over the last few weeks. Three days after ordering schools across the country to close indefinitely, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced strict social distancing measures on March 23, which were extended a furtherthree weeks on April 16. These include a total ban on public gatherings of more than two people, the prohibition of travel other than for essential work and medical reasons, and that peopleare notto leave their homes other than to carry out one form of exercise daily. As the nationwide lockdown continues amid rising spring temperatures across the U.K., we look at daily life around the country in pictures. Some schools are still open to cater for the children of key workers, such as NHS staff, and vulnerable pupils, such as those looked after by local authorities. People sit on their doorsteps in Islington as the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) continues, in London, England on April 5.   A woman wears a mask as she jogs past a closed amusement arcade with her dog on a deserted Bournemouth promenade in Bournemouth, England on March 29.    A man sits on a bus as people continue to socially distance themselves amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 26.     A handout photograph released by the UK parliament shows the second reading of the Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 in the House of Commons, with MPs observing social distancing by sitting two metres apart, in London, England on March 23.   Seattle offers a very different story. On 20 September, the city’s commissioner of health, Dr JS McBride, acknowledged that “it was not unlikely” that influenza would reach the city and warned the citizenry that, if it did, isolating cases would be necessary. On 4 October, the story brokethat large numbers of students at the naval training station at the University of Washington had contracted influenza. Though he had initially hoped the pandemic would pass in lessthan a week, the health commissioner maintained the restrictions, even as the number of cases began to decrease. And Seattle and Philadelphia offer a stark lesson – imposing “shelter-in-place” orders, as well as other measures such as public masking andthequarantining of the sick and infected, saves lives. • Nancy K Bristow is a professor of history at the University of Puget Sound and is the author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic and Steeped in the Blood of Racism (published in July 2020)