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What the 1918 pandemic can tell us about a post-COVID-19 world

Historians, medical experts, sociologists, and economists look back to 1918 to make predictions for the coming year.

What the 1918 pandemic can tell us about a post-COVID-19 world
[Source images: JoshLi/iStock; <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/navymedicine/7839561772">Navy Medicine/Flickr; Kristine Wook/Unsplash; Jonathan Borba/Unsplash]
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It has now been a year since many office workers were sent home, schools were shuttered, and essential businesses went into overdrive keeping up with customer demand for comestibles and toilet paper. Although vaccinations continue apace, social distancing and mask wearing are still a reality, along with remote work. Which raises some questions: When will it end? And more to the point: What will our new “normal” look like?

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These are questions that were posed during prior pandemics, most notably from 1918 to 1920, when influenza ravaged the world’s population, taking (by one estimate) some 50 million lives. Economists, historians, and psychologists alike have studied the past and pondered its potential implications for what the future may bring. Here are a few predictions:

An increase in depression and other mental illnesses

“More than 100 years have passed since the worldwide influenza pandemic that resulted in a markedly increased rate of neurological and psychiatric” aftereffects of the disease, Robert Yolken of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recently wrote in The Lancet. “Despite great advances in medical science, we are faced with some of the same issues.”

Indeed, in the years immediately following the influenza pandemic, The Lancet found that “the ‘higher centers [of the nervous system] suffer chiefly. Marked depression is common, emotional instability is often seen, and suicide is by no means rare.” And Samuel West wrote in an earlier Lancet report that “the depression which follows influenza is so constant that it ought to be regarded as part of the disease.”

According to Catherine Ettman, chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives in the office of the dean at Boston University School of Public Health, there have been more mental health problems during this pandemic than have been documented after other large-scale traumas. “The reason for that is probably that this is not one event. This is due to both COVID and the fear and anxiety around COVID, as well as its dramatic economic consequences,” she said.

Anna Meuller, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, is more explicit. “Given the number of families that have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic, we’re going to see an increase in children who have experienced deprivation, insecurity, and traumatic stress,” she told Science News. “These challenges early in life can have lasting consequences for physical and mental health, and for academic achievement. Without active steps to help affected children and their families, this will have a long-term tragic effect on U.S. society.”

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A return of the Roaring Twenties

The 1918 pandemic (and previous plagues) brought forth an initial wave of stricter morals and less societal tolerance for risk. Although the U.S. and other countries have been divided in their approach to precautionary measures for COVID-19, the widespread shutdown of large-scale events and entertainment, the slowdown of travel both domestic and abroad, and the fact that more people are saving money, rather than spending, bears this out.

Yale professor and social epidemiologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis is one who has observed social behaviors across the centuries and predicts there will be a backlash to quarantines and social distancing, just as there was in the 1920s.

“In 2024, all of those [pandemic trends] will be reversed,” he said in a recent Guardian article. “People will relentlessly seek out social interactions.” Whether that manifests as “sexual licentiousness,” a “reverse of religiosity,” or just increased spending remains to be seen.

Christopher McKnight Nichols, a historian at Oregon State University, agrees with this characterization of how people may behave once it’s safe to go out again. He noted that post-1918 is when sports such as professional baseball and football actually gained wide popularity. However, he points out, “It’s an open question whether social behaviors we took for granted, such as handshaking and hugging, will endure.”

An economic boom

During the dark days of the influenza pandemic, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stayed relatively solid, not dipping more than 5% below where it was on March 4, 1918, which some say was the beginning of the crisis. Just eight months later, the Dow rose 11%. And we know that after it was over, between 1921 and the stock market crash in 1929, the U.S. economy grew by 42%.

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COVID-19 had a different effect on the market. On March 23, the Dow was down 37% from an all-time high in February. And the U.S. economy, while not in a boom yet, is showing signs of blooming, with job postings up and the service sector reopening.

In a report for The Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, suggests that the reason for the more dramatic dip during the recent pandemic is that there were no lockdowns in 1918, although people were instructed to wear masks.

In that same report, Andrew Lo, a finance professor at MIT, predicted that the economy “will grow far enough and fast enough in coming months to catch up to the stock market.” That wasn’t a hard and fast prediction, though. “Leadership is crucial to this bright future,” he said. “Lack of leadership can be disastrous.”

Regardless, Ryan Ratcliff, PhD, an associate professor of economics at the University of San Diego, expects that an economic recovery will highlight the wealth gap. “You’ve got big spending potential among the higher-income sets, and they have been less impacted. That suggests we’ll get that consumption boom once we’re able to come out of the bunker,” he told NBC San Diego. “When you look at households making $50,000, the job loss is very concentrated there, and this is much more a recession that makes the financial crisis look like a brief hiccup,” said Ratcliff.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic, particularly as jobs in the hospitality sector come back. “The same way that our great-grandparents fought World War I, went through a pandemic with the Spanish Flu and got to 1920 and said ‘We just did a lot of great things, let’s celebrate,’ I think that is what I expect to see in 2022.”

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Ultimately, the comparisons and predictions can only go so far. “People seek answers from the experiences of influenza in 1918-19 for a fundamental reason: It ended,” according to Mari Webel, assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Megan Culler Freeman, a Pediatric Infectious Diseases Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. The COVID-19 pandemic is a novel one, they argued in a report for The Conversation.

“The pandemic’s scientific complexities are formidable challenges,” they explained. “They’re playing out in a global economy that has ground to a halt, with resultant increasing pressures to reopen communities, and a technologically advanced and interconnected society—all issues that our predecessors a century ago did not have to consider.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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