The COVID-19 crisis certainly feels unprecedented, and in most ways it is. Never has the world faced a health crisis that has moved so quickly across continents, overwhelming complex health care systems, and putting entire economies on hold. But this isn’t the first pandemic the globe has faced, and it likely won’t be the last.
Together, humanity has stood on the precipice of many uncertainties caused by different unrelenting viruses. But no matter what the challenge—the Spanish flu in 1918, the flu pandemic in 1957, the HIV/AIDS crisis, West Nile, SARS, swine flu, Ebola—there has been a light at the other side and lessons to be learned.
These various pandemics all pose the same question: What has the past taught us that we can apply to future crises?
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, sitting in the epicenter of the U.S. crisis, has repeatedly used the podium of his daily press conferences to warn that this will not be the last time we see a contagion of this scale. He underscores the importance of looking to the past to find answers for the present and future.
We see in the photos below that masks and other personal protective equipment have been used to contain outbreaks for over a century, so why wasn’t the United States prepared with enough gear for doctors and nurses this time around? The images explain that despite advances in technology, medicine, and globalization, the way governments handle pandemics, the way the public reacts to them, and the panic and then acceptance of these temporary “new normals” that they bring about remain largely the same as always.
While many of the images show the power of community, we now know that social distancing works and that community can be felt from afar. It’s difficult to witness the large groups of Americans sitting together in Harlem in the 1950s waiting to be tested for the Asian flu, which killed 1.1 million people worldwide. The only way to prevent the spread of a highly contagious virus is to isolate people from one another, something we must learn from the quick spread of other illnesses.
Another lesson: Research and vaccinations work. Polio haunted Americans for four decades, causing the closure of movie theaters and swimming pools, with parents preventing their children from attending birthday parties and other social gatherings. By 1952 there were nearly 60,000 cases of polio in the United States and over 3,000 deaths. The disease caused fear across the country and world, and yet no cure appeared. And then Jonas Salk, a young scientist in his thirties, found a vaccine. The government moved to bend regulatory oversight to move the product quickly, and the plan was successful. Today, polio isn’t even a thought on most Americans’ minds.
Recovery came quickly and fear subsided, a lesson to be learned for those who worry that they’ll never be able to hug their loved ones again.
Scroll below to explore the history of pandemics through photographs.
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