2020 Vs. 1918: How Similar is the World Handling Pandemic?

UB expert says social distancing and school closures happened a century ago

Tom Puckett
March 30, 2020 - 4:00 am
headline announces broad closures during 1918 flu pandemic.

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Buffalo, NY (WBEN) While we're dealing with the first major pandemic of our lifetimes with the coronavirus outbreak, this certainly isn't the first public health calamity to stirke Buffalo and New York. 

Before we dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, millions around the world were dealing the flu pandemic of 1918. And an expert from the State University of New York at Buffalo says there are some similiarties in how authorities tried to combat the spread of the diseases.

Dr. Shauna Zorich of UB says thing the two pandemics have in common are the disruptions to daily life that suddenly comprise our new reality: Social distancing, school and business closures, and intense efforts to increase hospital capacity in response to a serious public health emergency. "They put different regulations in place so people weren’t coming into close contact with each other. The mayor at that time issued a proclamation that restricted assembly of more than 10 individuals. This meant that public and private schools were closed. Churches were closed. Recreational facilities were closed as well, like theaters and bowling alleys and saloons back in 1918," says Zorich. “The restrictions were really rigorously enforced."

Zorich says the rules may have been strict, but they appeared to be effective, helping to reduce deaths. In Buffalo, according to some estimates, less than 6 percent of the population was infected by the 1918 flu — notably lower than the average nationwide, Zorich says. "The restrictive measures lasted about three weeks. I do think it's important to recognize Buffalo wasn't spared. Buffalo recorded over 3,000 deaths due to influenza and pneumoni in 1918. These numbers would have been higher if Buffalo had not taken the swift action it took," Zorich adds.

Flu Pandemic of 1918

Zorich says in 1918 Buffalo called up UB medical students to help treat the sick. They included sophomores and juniors as well as seniors because other doctors were helpling in the war effort.

“When you think about 1918, the challenges that they faced during that time were just enormous. They had not yet identified the pathogen that caused influenza,” she says. “They didn’t even know they were dealing with a virus. And all of this was happening at the same time that medical personnel were deployed for World War I, so they also had a shortage of medical personnel.

“The list of the challenges they were facing in 1918 goes on and on, and yet Buffalo came out of it. The country came out of it — we survived. Yes, there was a tremendous loss of life, but everyone came together and persisted.”

“Because there is no vaccine yet, what we’re really focused on is non-pharmaceutical interventions. This means we’re taking actions at the individual and community level, like social distancing, to decrease the spread of communicable disease,” Zorich.

However, “Today, we have more knowledge, we have more experience, we have more technology, and we have a better public health infrastructure,” she adds. “If we put these strengths to work, and if everyone does their part, we’re going to come out of this just like we came out of the 1918 pandemic, with hopefully many fewer lives lost.”


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