No learning from the Spanish flu

Synopsis: The governments of several countries have failed to understand and foresee human behaviour. This is even after they have witnessed a pandemic like the Spanish Flu in the past.

Introduction 

  • The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the most severe pandemic in history. It lasted for 2 years, in 3 waves, with 500 million people infected and 50 million deaths. Most of the mortalities occurred in the 2nd wave. 
  • The people were fed up with the quarantine and social distancing measures. The people rejoiced in the streets as soon as the measures were lifted. After which the second wave occurred and claimed tens of millions of lives. 
  • According to James Harris, a historian at Ohio State University, the reason behind the spread of a second wave was that officials were reluctant to enforce restrictions during the war despite the presence of a new mutated strain.

Why did the people not take lessons from the past?

We haven’t learned from history to prevent millions of infections and deaths worldwide. 

  1. Firstly, Knowledge doesn’t change behavior. Having information about the Spanish flu is very different from having to live through a similar pandemic. For instance, being informed about the protectiveness of the masks doesn’t make people wear them. Similarly, knowing about social distancing doesn’t make people perform it.
  2. Secondly, in many countries, people were fed up with lockdowns, wearing masks, staying at home, and not socializing last year. Human beings are social animals. Social banishment has been proved to cause pain in the brain similar to putting up with physical pain.
  3. Thirdly, as soon as the number of cases began to decrease by the end of the first COVID-19 wave, governments and people across the globe started to let their guard down. Many businesses were allowed to restart. 
  4. For example, restaurants that were doubted to be one of the major centers for the spread of COVID-19 were given consent to open. Signs outside their doors read ‘No entry without a mask’, but visitors could remove their masks even while not eating once they were inside.
    • People could talk, laugh, sneeze, and cough in indoor non-ventilated spaces. These people knew about the threats of this behavior.  Some of them must have read about the Spanish flu. However, awareness and action often lie at opposing ends.

Where did the governments go wrong?

Everyone needs to contribute to breaking the chain of COVID-19 infections. However, the final duty of managing the pandemic cannot be on the people. It is the job of governments.

  • Governments of most nations failed to learn from the Spanish flu because they failed to realize and foresee human behavior. For instance, the government in India allowed election rallies and religious gatherings.
  • The government hesitated in imposing a lockdown despite the rise of new strains of the virus. Leaders were seen making speeches in crowds and conducting meetings without masks. 
  • Every politician wants to win over people and give them what they want. They declared victory prematurely and gave rise to policies that caused the second wave.

The conclusion 

  • India had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other countries which opened up too soon after the first wave. But it didn’t. This has led to a huge rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
  • Overconfidence in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic and underestimation of the ability of COVID-19 to cause infections and deaths in the second wave led to the surge in infections. We have the benefit of curbing COVID-19 by vaccinating people now at least.

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