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  • Raghav Sand

The Forgotten Flu of 1918 and Covid-19

The infamous ‘Spanish Flu’, the most fatal event of last century, was mistakenly and unreasonably named after a nation that remained largely neutral during World War I. By reasonable estimates, 50 million (5 Crore) people lost their lives due to the deadly virus in 1918 and sometimes the person died with in twelve hours of fever and skin discoloration. Even if we add up the deaths from both the World Wars, the flu of 1918 alone surpassed deaths from combat or bombardments. Did we learn any lessons from the monumental failure of our healthcare system then? Or, are we repeating the same mistakes, over and over again?

Three possible theories about the origins of 1918 flu have been documented, among which the mention of a British military base in France remains most cited. Troop mobilization during the first world war served the interests of virus well. Young men who escaped the bullet, carried back a deadly virus to their home town and before dying, unknowingly infected others.

Manipulation of public information is not a new thing. When France, United States and Britain were occupied with World War I, they were simultaneously being battered by a never seen before flu. The military and Governments of these nations censured their press to not report the correct figures of infections and fatalities. The news about the flu was not missing altogether, as it did find mention in the inside pages. Such measures were adopted to keep the morale of citizens high during a war.

Cessation of work in ammunition and other necessary goods’ factories would have become the difference between victory and defeat in the geopolitical arena. So, if you feel that public health authorities and a section of media are trying to play down the situation on the ground in 2021, you are not far off from the truth.

In all this orchestrated chaos, the press in Spain was giving the virus proper and prominent coverage. Hence, the press and public health officials in other nations found a suitable candidate to point fingers at.

Reality Check

When public health authorities and medicos acknowledge the real picture, it helps everyone – the citizens realise the gravity of the situation and become more vigilant and everyone in the health ecosystem stops playing games. There is fear in people’s mind at the moment. People are anxious about finding the right treatment, at the right time, and at the right price. Some fear is good. Sports psychologists train their wards by asking them to approach the opponent as the stronger and sharper person or team. By doing so, the player raises the level of performance and is always on his or her toes. More often than not, this approach delivers results. Covid-19 is not just another seasonal flu; it is transforming and is staying longer with the host so that it can infect more people.

Covid-19 is the first digitally witnessed pandemic and may not be easily forgotten like its predecessors. We have huge amount of data about the infection rates, death and vaccination drives. All this data will help in analysing the mayhem caused by the invisible pathogen.

There are many similarities between the Covid-19 virus and the flu of 1918. Between then and now, a lot has changed – the world population has grown more than four times, our healthcare capabilities have evolved dramatically, and cross continental travel time has come down exponentially, but what has not changed is the attitude of people towards health and well-being. Due to industrialization and lack of physical activity, the condition of respiratory organs of a healthy-looking individual are nowhere close to what it should be. This window of opportunity was all it took for the Covid-19 virus to create havoc.

How Does it All End?

This is not an easy question. We have seen how covid-appropriate behaviour and protocol was not universally followed. And, now the world is witnessing a never seen before immunization drive for Covid-19 vaccine. Emergency use authorization for multiple vaccines have been accorded in record time and by the end of September, half the world will get the jab. Science has made our life safer, easier and healthier, but it was not able to predict the pandemic. The level of expertise and sophistication we have at the moment does not guarantee safety from another novel coronavirus.

Theoretically, vaccination may expedite the end of Covid-19, though historically, such viruses run their course and subside at will. They leave people either immune or dead. Internet has made joy and sorrow global – the connectedness has two sides. Constant solidarity will serve no real purpose and leave you drained. If you can help in any way whatsoever, please do, else try to rebuild relationships and organizations in your local community. The end result of fabricated optimism and reasonable pessimism are in the same ball park.

History Will Repeat Itself

In the aftermath of 1918 flu, many nations took tangible action. Those who survived the onslaught, resolved to revamp the public healthcare system. This is the reason why this time round, even after a high positivity rate, some nations fared better than those who have a rudimentary healthcare infrastructure. Badly affected countries cannot wait for the pandemic to get over to get their house in order. If we apply mind and money in the right place and with genuine intent, we can be better prepared for future pandemics.

Rise Above Petty Politics

When the nation is grappling with a deadly virus, opportunist individuals are busy in taking potshots at the Government. Whenever a Chief Minister tries to play the victim card or publicly shift all the blame on the Prime Minister, they are stooping to a new low. As all the leaders, including those part of the union cabinet, may have realised, aspiring to be a minister and delivering results are completely different things. Someone who has been accepted by a vast majority of people to steer them into the future cannot do it alone. Leaders were glad to get their names etched in stone when they inaugurated infrastructure projects. These same leaders have to divert the stones being thrown at them for alleged mismanagement. As citizens we cannot send our mind on a holiday and expect a handful of politicians and bureaucrats to do all the work. Anyone who is posting vague and vicious monologues or blogs on social media, should walk the talk.

Among all this freedom of expression and some insubstantial litigation, there are individuals who are helping others and finding solutions beyond their financial means. If someone thinks that a pandemic is the best time to project themselves as the best alternative leader of the republic, a polite reminder: make better use of your time and reach. For once, stop enumerating problems, and try to be a part of the solution. Politics over the pyres of deceased is disgraceful and inhuman.

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