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  /  Analysis & Opinions   /  COVID-19 Through the Lens of History

COVID-19 Through the Lens of History

By James Kisaale
James Kisaale
During crises, Governments have full responsibilities to protect their people. COVID-19 is clearly a major global crisis. What lessons for today’s political leaders can we learn from studying how political leaders in the past responded to previous crises such as pandemics?
Four global (pandemic) outbreaks of influenza occurred in the 20th century: in 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009. Combating a disease of unknown cause is a daunting task. One hundred years ago in 1918, a pandemic of poorly understood etiology and transmissibility spread worldwide, causing an estimated 50 million deaths. Therefore, by analyzing different historical narratives of the 1918 influenza pandemic, we are able to garner key lessons of how countries such as the United States which is estimated to have lost 700,000 people coped with this viral disease.

Medical historian Miles and his friends gave a historical narrative of how the State of Minnesota in the United States confronted the 1918 “Spanish Flu” using a case study of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. They reported that St. Paul government officials enacted a closing order for the whole city, including schools, theaters, churches, and dance halls and enforced stringent sanitation laws including hand washing, use of gloves, and gauze masks.

Minneapolis and St. Paul limited crowding in places with restricted access to fresh air by enacting street car regulations that effectively reduced the number of cars and passengers on roads. They also regulated the business hours of stores and theaters.
However, the closing of public places in Minneapolis was announced in advance, so people rushed to complete those activities that would soon be banned, resulting
in the very same crowded conditions the ban sought to prevent. “Downtown theaters were packed last night with patrons who took advantage of their last chance
to see a performance until the ban is lifted” reported the Minneapolis Tribune October 13, 1918.

Similar historical accounts of how other States in the United States confronted the 1918 flu pandemic have been chronicled by historian John Barry who summarized the State measures in this quote: “Not a single automobile was moving on the street in Manhattan. In Philadelphia, a medical student was able to count cars on the way in and said the city was dead. It seemed at the time like civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth”.

Barry contended that false reassurance was the worst thing political leaders could do in the face of a pandemic. He noted that cities whose leaders told their people the truth about the pandemic coped better than those cities whose leaders withheld the truth. Barry narrated that the people’s trust in the political leadership was key. It is when people felt totally alienated and isolated that society broke down in the face of that pandemic. However, telling the truth is what held society together.

Historian Short and his friends showed that governments relied on non-pharmaceutical interventions to curtail the 1918 influenza pandemic. For instance, many countries imposed strict maritime quarantine measures on all incoming ships to curtail the spread of influenza. Australia for instance, imposed the maritime quarantine early enough before any victims of the influenza pandemic were reported.

This quarantine protected Australia from the worst of the pandemic and indirectly contributed to protecting certain Pacific Islands that depended on Australian supply ships as demonstrated in the American Samoa and Western Samoa experience. The U.S. Governor of American Samoa imposed a strict maritime quarantine and in so doing, no deaths from the 1918 influenza were ever recorded on his island. Nevertheless, the nearby Western Samoa (located about 100 km away), did not practice strict maritime quarantine, and consequently, it was infected leading to the death of more than a quarter of its population.

The timing when these interventions were lifted also affected the overall mortality in a given city. For instance, as soon as these restrictions were relaxed (typically within 2–8 weeks of their implementation) the viral transmission reoccurred as was the case in the outbreak of the 2009 pandemic influenza virus in Mexico, where after an 18-day period of mandatory school closure was implemented in the greater Mexico City area, there was a dramatic increase of influenza activity in 32 Mexican states in the autumn of 2009, a period which coincided with schools opening for the autumn term.

In conclusion, a historical perspective of how previous influenza pandemics have been defeated is critical for deriving action plans in the current fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Observing that the Ugandan Government championed by His Excellency the President and the Honorable Minister of Health have instituted and implemented several of the measures cited in these historical accounts, their actions are highly applauded. The Government is thus encouraged to remain steadfast in enforcing the current measures until our country is cleared of this pandemic.

Stay home. Stay safe.

The writer is a PHD candidate in global leadership, a member of the Advisory Team of the Centre for Strategic Leadership (CASTLE) and an Alumnus of the Institute for National Transformation