1918 vs Now: What Went Wrong with Our Response?

It was more than a century ago when we had a pandemic that could rival the severity of COVID-19.

It was more than a century ago when we had a pandemic that could rival the severity of COVID-19.

The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic was the largest pandemic in human history, with an estimated one third of the world’s population infected at the time. 50 million people perished from what we later learned was the H1N1 influenza virus. That was one death for every 10 people infected, a much deadlier mortality rate than that of the coronavirus. Historians, policymakers, and scholars often look to this tragic pandemic as it shares countless similarities with the many outbreaks we face today, including the current COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, they point out that traditional and rudimentary techniques to stop the spread, such as adopting quarantine measures and wearing masks, are time-proven methods that are still in use today. So, what differentiates COVID-19 from the Spanish flu?

Some have blamed globalization as the reason why the current pandemic is spiraling out of control. They argue that technologies have enabled humans to travel greater distances, increasing the interactions between people from different countries and thus making disease transmission much easier. Nonetheless, we should not use the advent of globalization as a scapegoat. The root cause of our unpreparedness for COVID-19, and the severity of this outbreak, lies in the lack of globalized efforts to fight the pandemic in a modern and effective way. Unilateralism and protectionism, increasingly prevalent among nations across the world, are the true culprits. These close-minded ideologies are pushing back the progress made to increase communication and are hindering the sharing of research among international communities. Our current situation is eerily similar to a century ago, just slightly better; however, the main difference between the 2020 COVID-19 and the 1918 Spanish flu is that our struggles arise not due to a lack of medical advancements but rather our global disunity.

Some countries are adopting their own methods in dealing with COVID-19 rather than working with other nations to establish a standard approach. As a result, some methods have delayed the progress in flattening the overall curve globally as emigration from these oddball nations have contributed to the soaring number of cases elsewhere. Rather than imposing tighter restrictions, Sweden's "herd immunity" method allows businesses to open as usual, boosting the unstable economy; however, its mortality rates are higher than those in countries that are practicing social distancing. In prioritizing its own domestic economy over flattening the overall curve of the disease, Sweden's decision to stray away from methods that its neighboring nations have adopted demonstrates that global disunity only lessens the efficacy of the response. The World Health Organization (WHO) also, unfortunately, failed to take the lead in discharging its responsibility to unite forces against the virus, failing to provide a clear and universal sense of direction and guidance for governments around the world to follow. The WHO is meant to be a source of leadership during worldwide public health crises, but rather than fulfilling its role as an international coordinator of pandemic response, it became a political playground for disputes. It sparked controversies around sensitive issues such as the membership of Taiwan and fueled further tensions between the United States and China, with the two global powers playing a blame game. After the WHO didn’t agree with President Trump, he threatened to permanently pull funding and leave the organization, placing his domestic interests and pride above the organization that is aiding countless countries during this crisis. Trump’s response did not just jeopardize the U.S.—it jeopardized the rest of the world and only served to further increase polarization. All these factors contributed to a slow and ineffective coordination in fighting the coronavirus as the WHO did not succeed in creating a truly collaborative platform for all nations.

It is ironic, even disappointing, that we are now much better equipped yet still unable to put our “arsenals” to use effectively. Herein lies the real problem: a lack of genuine cooperation. For instance, with the help of cutting-edge technologies like big data, the larger the input from different countries, the more accurate the models and predictions of the spread of the virus should be. With more collaboration from countries, computer simulations of virus trends and patterns should become more accurate and useful, which can assist medical advisors to make objective, scientific, and data-based decisions. This is especially crucial for policymakers who are trying to figure out the optimal solution to restart economic activities while minimizing the health risks associated with reopening our societies. Perhaps testing could be more widespread or supplies could be better distributed to areas in need, slowing the spread of the virus. Ultimately, if countries and organizations were able to collaborate, nations across the globe would develop a better understanding of the nature and scope of this virus and be able to control the outbreak more effectively.

In short, true globalization is the solution to improving our ability to counter the next pandemic. A century ago, we did not have the necessary tools and institutions to inform and guide the world in countering a pandemic effectively. Now that we do, it is only logical for us to fully apply these advancements and resources. If organizations strive to improve their leadership and countries set aside their bickering and self-serving goals prior to the pandemic, then the result of global collaboration could lead to a win-win situation for all. We must remember that the pathogen is indiscriminate and affects everyone, regardless of nationalities. It is our common enemy and must be defeated by the global community together.

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