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Pandemic Parallels: OSU forum discusses how the current COVID-19 pandemic rhymes with 1918 outbreak

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1918 flu pandemic

1918 Photo - People wearing face masks at an undetermined Georgia Tech home game during the 1918 college football season, when the sport was hit by the Spanish flu at the end of World War I., Photo Date: 1918 (Thomas Carter / Andy McNeal)

It's not just the scale of the two pandemics that looks similar — even separated by nearly 100 years, much of the outbreak ebb and flow has been the same.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – History often repeats itself and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

Today, an Oregon State University Professor of history, who has studied the 1918 pandemic extensively joined a forum and shed light on the repeat actions he’s seeing and how today’s modern world isn’t far off from the early 20th century.

“What we are seeing now is very similar to fall and winter of 1918-1919,” says Chris Nichols, historian and associate professor at OSU, “Americans were fatigued by restrictions and the endless pandemic, they began to balk at public health officials.”

There are strong similarities all throughout the two pandemics, nearly 100 years apart but especially so now as we encounter year three of the coronavirus and people grow increasingly less tolerant of safety measures suggested by public health.

“Like now, there was a push by special interests, particularly in some cities and counties to open more rapidly; pitting general public health against the health economy, which is as much of a false dichotomy then as it is now,” says Nichols.

Just like in 1918, a lack of communication is the number one problem.

“In the historical record, one thing that’s fascinating is the lack of communication, clear, coherent, honest communication is the number one problem and we’ve seen that throughout this from the Trump administration through the Biden administration,” says Nichols.

There was push back in 1918 as well; journalists of the time described communication surrounding the pandemic as “indescribable confusion.”

“As people were more confused about how to take reasonable measures to safeguard themselves and their families they actually withdraw more or they fight more and historical record clearly shows that. That’s when you find the Anti-Mask League, the one and only organized group that pushes back and that’s in January and February of 1919,” says Nichols.

Just like we see in history, pandemic fatigue today has also been driven in part by confusion surrounding ever-changing safety guidance or guidance that isn’t realistic in implementation or enforcement.

“The rules don’t map on to the reality of every day people,” says Aimee Huff, associate professor at OSU, “Generally, as people continue to sense unfairness related to the pandemic, it contributes to fatigue so it just makes it harder to get public buy-in on restrictions and policies.”

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Alicia Rubin joined the Newswatch 12 news team as an anchor and reporter in October 2017. She now anchors evening broadcasts alongside co-anchor Brian Morton.

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