What We Can Learn from The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19

Individual action is the greatest weapon we have against this virus; we also have more power than we know.

Lecture Description

We must look to the past to understand and adapt to the challenge of the present. Contemporary developments related to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 are moving fast and involve every part of the United States and reach around the world. So, what might we glean from the lessons of our past to help us in the present? Not knowing what the eventual toll will be, looking into the lessons of history —and the impact of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (which infected 20-30% of the world’s population, accounting for as many as 50 million deaths including roughly 675,000 Americans) —could perhaps offer clues to how we might navigate this moment collectively. In this talk, Nichols explores what happened and why. He opens new vistas onto the WWI Era, the wartime spread of influenza, the role of the media, politicians, and citizens, public policy and public health. The talk addresses comparative urban and international history, with a focus on the United States, and such efforts as sheltering-in-place, quarantine, and socially distancing in the name of a greater good. In addition, Nichols seeks to address how influenza disease and death alongside broader discussions of public health fit into economic and social concerns. He argues that history rarely offers such clear insights about proactive public policy, honest, rapid information government transmission, the significance of local, city, and state officials, and the agency of everyday people to help stem the tide of devastation and disease. In the end, what we can learn from the 1918-19 pandemic challenges us all to think about the wider possible ramifications of pandemics and crisis. For example, the enmeshed challenges of the war and influenza were crucial to propelling the U.S.’s shift toward post-war “normalcy,” the strike, isolationist foreign policies, and even stringent immigration laws.


Public Health and Disease Public History and Memory

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Christopher McKnight Nichols

VIEW SPEAKER : Christopher McKnight Nichols

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