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More People Died in the Spanish Flu’s Second Wave. And That’s Why We Need to Stay Home

The worst might be yet to come.
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The Philippines has yet to peak and flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic on home turf, but there are already worries of a second surge occurring when lockdown is lifted. And we are right to be worried—Singapore, which thought it had controlled its outbreak, experienced a second surge a few days ago when its cases spiked to 9,000, a third of which was reported in only three days. Meanwhile, Japan, which seemed to be doing everything right, also experienced another surge that has resulted in the “collapse of emergency medicine,” according to Japanese medical associations.

In the U.S., which has the most number of COVID-19 cases in the world, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) Robert Redfield warned that a second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.A. could occur in the winter and be substantially worse than the current one.

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If we look at history, Redfield’s prediction echoes what happened during the Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1919, which killed 20 million to 50 million people around the world.

The Spanish Flu's fatalities during its first, second, and third waves

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The Spanish Flu’s Second Wave

According to research published in the CDCP journal Emerging Infectious Diseases called “1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics,” the 1918 pandemic killed more people in its second wave than it did in its first and third waves combined in the United Kingdom alone.

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The first wave’s mortality rates were said to be similar to seasonal flu, but Spanish journalists could sense something was amiss. Spain, a neutral country during World War I, was one of the only countries where the media was not as censored compared to countries involved in the war. That’s how the flu got its name.

Although the Spanish Flu emerged at the height of the Great War, the second wave was ushered by the end of the war as troops returned home toward the end of 1918, thereby spreading the virus to all corners of the globe. Historians say that a mutated version of the Spanish flu caused the second wave’s high fatalities, but the lack of quarantine, nursing shortages, undeveloped medicine, and poor government public health responses certainly didn’t help matters. 

Citing the Spanish Flu’s second wave, a paper by Yale University’s Tobin Center for Economic Policy warns against a more severe second or third wave and suggests governments must be cautious before reopening nations. Even Chinese scientists admit that a second wave would be harder to contain, and scientists are already studying how the coronavirus will mutateand they're sure it will.

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According to the paper, the priority now should be to fund COVID-19 testing centers, produce more testing kits and PPEs, develop vaccines, and rely on real time data to make the right decisions.

So when the World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns us that “the worst is yet ahead of us,” it might do well for us to listen and realize social distancing is here to stay.

“It’s a virus that many people still don’t understand. The fact is, countries must consider if they plan to start lifting so-called lockdown restrictions,” said Adhanom on April 21. “We want to reemphasize that easing restrictions is not the end of the epidemic in any country. Ending the epidemic will require a sustained effort on the part of individuals, communities, and governments to continue suppressing and controlling this deadly virus.”

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Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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