Once in a Century Pandemic….Again?!

By Clayton Richards

The last few years have brought a whirlwind of change and devastating circumstances to our society. These events have recently ranged from political stalemates, both domestic and international, racial protests and violence, and even a global pandemic. This combination of events has produced a defining moment in our recent history, something that will be analyzed and debated by our society for many years to come. The last time a series of events like this occurred was much more recently than you would think. Only one hundred years ago, the world was faced with the Spanish Flu pandemic, the earth-shattering aftermath of the First World War, and in the US the fight for African American rights engulfed the nation. Surprisingly, one hundred years later the world is faced with a strangely similar chain of events which are having just as profound an impact upon us.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced society to change over the last six months, from how we work to how we travel and interact with each other on a daily basis. Many have taken to calling the COVID-19 outbreak as a ‘once in a century pandemic.’ To highlight this point, almost exactly one hundred years before, a similarly devastating pandemic rocked the world. The Spanish Flu (although it likely began in the U.S. or China as opposed to Spain), began in 1918 and rapidly spread across the world. With so many people massed together because of World War I, the flu would go to infect about a third of the world’s population over the two years in which the outbreaks occurred. Just as today, society was forced to adapt to the threat of the flu. Although public health initiatives didn’t traditionally aid with flu outbreaks back then, public safety programs such as social distancing and closures were put in place all over the world to fight the flu.

Besides the Spanish Flu, politically the U.S. was facing a variety of challenges from 1918 to 1920 that seem quite familiar to us today in 2020. At the international level, both parties were deadlocked over how to proceed after World War I as an international power. At home, fears over Communists and other radicals in the U.S. led to political arrests during the First Red Scare. However, the events that have the most connections to events in our time was the violence of Red Summer in 1919. Red Summer was a series of racially violent riots and attacks in major cities across the U.S. following World War I. African American communities and leaders looked to maintain the limited expanded freedoms and opportunities they had gained during the War, while pushing for more equality. Hundreds died throughout the U.S. in these months. Sadly, what these leaders were pushing for relates directly to what the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is protesting for, racial equality and opportunity.     

Some say that history repeats itself, and in this circumstance, it eerily seems like it has. It is strange that despite a century of advancement and progress, we are confronted with the same threats. However, despite all the tragic similarities between these two eras, we can see that lessons and progress has been made. Some places have taken the lessons on how to fight a massive pandemic from the Spanish Flu and have been able to slow their COVID outbreaks. It should be noted that the progress that has been made that allows the BLM movement to be both so widespread, supported, and largely peaceful today cannot be understated, especially when compared to a hundred years ago. This is our once in a lifetime series of events, our history making moment, and our chance to make our mark, as a society, on history for the better.


Further Reading

For more in-depth information on this era of U.S. history, please see Ann Hagedorn’s Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919, which focuses mainly on 1919, but covers the flu pandemic, the Red Scare, Red Summer and many other events that make this era one of the most impactful and interesting in U.S. history (in my opinion).

Also, while researching this piece I read a very interesting article from USA Today comparing the 1918 flu pandemic and COVID-19 in terms of social distancing, which was incredibly interesting. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/05/31/lessons-1918-flu-coronavirus-social-distancing-historian-column/5283023002/

There is also this article from NBC news which discusses the racial violence of Red Summer and how it relates to what has been occurring in the U.S. during summer 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/racial-violence-pandemic-how-red-summer-1919-relates-2020-n1231499

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