An article in the Smithsonian Magazine warns that there is danger in comparing the flu pandemic of 1918 to the current crisis.
Influenza and coronavirus share basic similarities in the way they’re transmitted via respiratory droplets and the surfaces they land on. Descriptions of H1N1 influenza patients in 1918-19 echo the respiratory failure of COVID-19 sufferers a century later. Lessons from efforts to mitigate the spread of flu in 1918-19 have justifiably guided this pandemic’s policies promoting nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as physical distancing and school closures.
Current discussions about scaling back social distancing measures and “opening up” the country frequently refer to “waves” of disease that characterized the dramatic mortality of H1N1 influenza in three major peaks in 1918-19. As COVID-19 rates begin to steady in some parts of the U.S., people today are nervously eyeing the “second wave” of influenza that came in autumn 1918, that pandemic’s deadliest period.
Waves evoke predictability, however, and COVID-19 has been hard to predict. Despite the valuable lessons drawn from past influenza outbreaks, how pandemic influenza struck in 1918 isn’t a template for what will happen with COVID-19 in the coming months.