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With end of Covid pandemic within our grasp, we must learn the lessons of 1918

John M Barry


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A vaccination centre at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, on April 30, 2021. New York City is moving to fully reopen on July 1, the city's mayor Bill de Blasio has said. Photo: Gabby Jones/ Bloomberg

A vaccination centre at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, on April 30, 2021. New York City is moving to fully reopen on July 1, the city's mayor Bill de Blasio has said. Photo: Gabby Jones/ Bloomberg

Kavitha S pats the back of her father Subramanya P, 60, as he struggles to breathe with the aid of supplemental oxygen provided by an NGO on a pedestrian pavement on May 08, 2021 in Bengaluru, India

Kavitha S pats the back of her father Subramanya P, 60, as he struggles to breathe with the aid of supplemental oxygen provided by an NGO on a pedestrian pavement on May 08, 2021 in Bengaluru, India

Family members of a person who died of Covid-19 perform the last rites at a crematorium on May 09, 2021 in New Delhi, India. India broke a new record on Thursday with over 412,000 new cases of Covid-19 as the total number of those infected according to Health Ministry data neared 20 million. The real figure could be up to ten times higher, many health experts say, due to a lack of widespread testing or reporting, and only patients who succumbed in hospitals being counted. Hospitals have begun turning away people suffering from Covid-19, having run out of space for the crushing number of people seeking help. (Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

Family members of a person who died of Covid-19 perform the last rites at a crematorium on May 09, 2021 in New Delhi, India. India broke a new record on Thursday with over 412,000 new cases of Covid-19 as the total number of those infected according to Health Ministry data neared 20 million. The real figure could be up to ten times higher, many health experts say, due to a lack of widespread testing or reporting, and only patients who succumbed in hospitals being counted. Hospitals have begun turning away people suffering from Covid-19, having run out of space for the crushing number of people seeking help. (Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

A lady looks at the burning funeral pyres of the patients who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus from her house near a makeshift crematorium on May 09, 2021 in New Delhi, India.

A lady looks at the burning funeral pyres of the patients who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus from her house near a makeshift crematorium on May 09, 2021 in New Delhi, India.

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A vaccination centre at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, on April 30, 2021. New York City is moving to fully reopen on July 1, the city's mayor Bill de Blasio has said. Photo: Gabby Jones/ Bloomberg

More than a year into the pandemic, the situation is chaotic. Lacking vaccines, lacking resources or lacking good policies, India, Turkey, much of South America and elsewhere are seeing the virus rage as never before. Europe is finally improving after an extraordinarily difficult few months, while in the United States the pandemic’s end may be in sight. Are there any lessons that can be extracted from this landscape? And does the course of the 1918 pandemic hold any lessons for today?

To answer the last question first, the 1918 pandemic began in the spring with an intermittent first wave no deadlier than ordinary influenza, then seemed to disappear. A more contagious and more lethal variant caused the deadly second wave, then it also seemed to disappear.


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