How the 1918 Spanish Flu can help us navigate COVID-19

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — It’s been more than 100 years, but some of the findings taken from the Spanish Flu could help in response to the COVID-19 pandemic today. 

“There are quite a few comparisons,” said Brian Dixon, an associate professor of epidemiology at Richard M. Fairbanks Public School of Health and the director of public health informatics at the Regenstrief Institute. “Of course, modern medicine and society are a lot different now than they were back then.”

Despite those differences, researchers and economists say we have a lot to learn from the Spanish Flu pandemic like the potential for a second wave in the fall. 

“These diseases kind of creep up right at the end of influenza season and then they might go dormant for a little while, but they come back and then they are probably going to have another punch,” said Dixon. “So, we just want to make sure that we are prepared for that second punch that’s coming.”

Dixon said the best way to do that is easing into reopening the economy. IU Kelley School of Business economist Kyle Anderson agreed. 

“One thing that we found during the 1918 flu was that cities that were more aggressive with what we now call social distancing, stay at home orders, and those kinds of things, actually had a better economic recovery than those that did not,” said Anderson.

With today’s technology, self-quarantining is a lot easier than it was in 1918. You can talk to people through video chat and you can get anything you need delivered straight to your door through online orders and shipping.

“With the internet and technology we are able to work remotely,” said Anderson. “So, the economy was very different back then, manufacturing is what really suffered a lot because that’s what brought a lot of people close together.”

Anderson said today, manufacturing is more automated and workers are able to separate a little more. What’s really hurting now is the service sector. 

“If we have a second round, the economic impact of that could be really devastating because a lot of both households and businesses are going to be hoping to financially recover later in the summer and in the fall,” said Anderson.

Both experts agree that the country should be opening with caution. 

“We shouldn’t get too excited about a potential early sort of flattening of the curve and then just go back to the way things were immediately,” said Dixon. “Really, we should take our time and make preparations so that we can protect people from this disease and kind of ease into it.”

We should learn more on Friday about Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plans to reopen the state. He said it will be a gradual process. 

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