Photo essay: How the world has overcome pandemics over the last century

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.

Spanish Flu

Pandemics in History-Spanish Flu
The St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty with women holding stretchers at the backs of ambulances during the Spanish influenza epidemic in St. Louis, October 1918.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Helpers from Red Cross headquarters deliver baskets with blankets and other supplies for the sick during the Spanish flu in Beverly, Mass., in 1918.
Library of Congress


Pandemics in History-Polio
Iron lungs line up in all-out war on polio at the new Ranchos Los Amigos Respiratory Center after being rushed from the Los Angeles County Hospital in specially constructed ambulances, circa 1950.
Bettmann/Getty Images
Pandemics in History-Polio
A child cries while getting a shot of the polio vaccine in New York, April 1954. The first polio vaccine, known as inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) or Salk vaccine, was developed in the early 1950s by American physician Jonas Salk.

Asian Flu

Pandemics in History-Asian Flu
Fearing they have the Asian flu, a group of people wait at Central Harlem District Health clinic in October 1957. According to the CDC, there were an estimated 1.1 million deaths worldwide and 116,000 deaths in the United States from the Asian flu.
Bettmann/Getty images


Pandemics in History-AIDS
Marchers in New York City carry a banner in June 1983. The medical community, politicians, and support organizations have made incredible progress in the fight against this formerly unknown and heavily stigmatized virus.
arbara Alper—Getty Images
Pandemics in History-AIDS
Gary Walsch, who has AIDS, leans on a friend’s shoulder before the start of a candlelight vigil to bring awareness to the crisis in 1983.
Steve Ringman—San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

West Nile

Pandemics in History-West Nile Virus
A truck sprays insecticide as part of New York’s efforts to control the mosquito-borne West Nile virus in Staten Island in July 2000.
Chris Hondros—Newsmakers/Getty Images
Pandemics in History-West Nile Virus
Nick Leggio finds a dead blue jay in his New Orleans backyard and waits for the rodent control department to pick up the bird to test for the West Nile virus in August 2002.


Pandemics in History-SARS
Hong Kong politicians hand out free protective face masks to try to halt the spread of an atypical pneumonia, termed severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), in March 2003.
Christian Keenan—Getty Images
Pandemics in History-SARS
Passengers arriving from Singapore are required to pass through a quarantine check at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila for possible cases of SARS. The illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the SARS global outbreak of 2003 was contained.

Swine Flu

Pandemics in History-Swine Flu H1N1
A teacher in Mexico City welcomes students back to school after the swine flu crisis. Though the 2009 pandemic primarily affected children and young and middle-age adults, the impact of the H1N1 virus on the global population during the first year was less severe than that of previous pandemics.
Pandemics in History-Swine Flu H1N1
People wearing masks wait to get tested for H1N1 at a special ward in Kasturba Hospital in Mumbai in August 2009.
Kunal Patil—Hindustan Times/Getty Images


Pandemics in History-Ebola
Members of the Red Cross of Guinea carry the body of a person who died from Ebola across a burial ground with many fresh graves in Guéckédou, Guinea, in October 2014.
Kristin Palitza—picture alliance via Getty Images
Pandemics in History-Ebola
An employee helps a colleague put on his ventilated plastic suit during a simulation exercise in August 2014 used to prepare for possible contact with Ebola patients.
Boris Roessler—picture alliance/Getty Images


Pandemics in History-Covid-19
Lori Spencer and her husband, Michael Spencer, visit outside the room at Life Care Center, a Seattle-area nursing home, where Lori’s mom, Judie Shape, 81, is staying. Lori says Judie tested positive for the coronavirus in March 2020.
Jason Redmond—REUTERS
Pandemics in History-Covid-19
Doctors treat COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit at the Istituto Clinico Casalpalocco during the coronavirus pandemic in Rome.
Antonio Masiello—Getty Images
Pandemics in History-Covid-19
A worker in a protective suit writes on a cross to be placed on a grave after a funeral in Mexico during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Omar Martínez—picture alliance/Getty Images

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—What the law says about forcing employees back to the office
Alphabet and Facebook earnings are expected to be bad. The question is how bad?
How the U.S. should invest in public health before reopening the economy
—Tech issues and backlogs hit the SBA’s second round of PPP loans
—There may be 22 hidden coronavirus hotspots in states poised to lift restrictions
—Coronavirus brought China’s travel industry to a standstill. Now it’s showing signs of life
—The coronavirus pandemic is impacting critical research into neuromuscular diseases
—PODCAST: How 2 CEOs outside of health care decided to pivot to fight COVID-19
—WATCH: Fortune’s top 10 heroes of the coronavirus pandemic

Subscribe to Outbreak, a daily newsletter roundup of stories on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on global business. It’s free to get it in your inbox.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health