Posted 2:38 p.m. Monday, June 21, 2021

With many men headed to war in 1918, there wasn't enough interest from the La Crosse Normal School to form a band, so La Crosse Normal President Fassett Cotton recruited young men from Central High School. They are posing for a practice session in front of the unfinished physical education building, which was eventually named Wittich Hall. While construction started on the building in 1916, it was stopped during WWI, later opening in 1920. The university closed in mid-October 1918 due to the 1918 flu epidemic. Photo taken from the 1919 yearbook, courtesy of UWL Murphy Library Special Collections.

Professors share history lessons that could predict shifts in our post-pandemic lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in countless ways. It has altered the pace of technological innovation, shined a light on public health, and increased xenophobia and blame. But what changes from this period will stick and what will become a distant memory?  

UW-La Crosse Assistant Professor Penelope Hardy, who teaches a course on the history of epidemics, and Associate Professor Gita Pai, who teaches about the 1918-19 Flu pandemic and has written about COVID-19-induced xenophobia for a forthcoming book, share how pandemics and other widespread disease outbreaks throughout history have caused major shifts in society. These periods in our past may offer clues about where we are going next.  

Is the pandemic likely to spur permanent changes to technology or the way we work?  

We’ve all likely used at least one new piece of technology since the pandemic started — be it video conferencing tools, a new social media platform or an application to increase remote work productivity. But with all of this rapid innovation, we may wonder, will any of it take hold long-term?  

Pandemics of the past have spurred innovation and changes to how work and school is done. In some cases, these changes have remained long after illness and death subside.  

  • Higher wages and better treatment for workers: Black Death was a plague outbreak that started in the mid 1300s in Europe and Asia and eventually killed up to 60 percent of the global population. The plague lingered for centuries and its effects were devastating, including labor shortages and the ruin of many landowners. However, long-term, more demand for physical labor led to long-term changes for workers as they were empowered to demand higher wages and better treatment. These work changes spurred by Black Death are considered some of the first social justice movements and often looked at as the end of serfdom in much of Europe. 
  • Technological innovations to slow disease spread: Some technological changes as a result of disease outbreak were spurred by efforts to slow the spread. The Third Plague Pandemic, which started in China and spread globally at the end of the nineteenth century, led to significant technological efforts to prevent rats from travelling via ship. While plague still exists in parts of the world, techniques used at this time have successfully prevented plague from reaching pandemic status again. Examples of these innovations include adding simple rat guards to the lines that secure ships to the dock and chemical fumigation.
  • Innovations to continue learning remotely: While widespread remote learning may appear to be a new innovation, that is not the case. During the polio epidemic in the U.S., schools sometimes conducted classes via radio. Although it became a short-term solution, it is a reminder that COVID-19 isn’t the first time educational disruptions were remedied with technological innovation. 

Is the pandemic likely to change healthcare or notions of public health?  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health measures such as mandatory use of masks to prevent respiratory droplets from reaching others or the widespread reliance on centralized organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for health guidance have become commonplace. The pandemic has also revived debates about the value of a national health-care system. But whether these norms and conversation will continue in the months and years ahead is left to tell.  

Pandemics and other disease outbreaks throughout history have shined a light on the importance of public health. In some cases, this has led to a greater role of the government in public health or advances in medicine. In other cases, it has not created permanent change. Pai and Hardy point to a few examples from history.  

  • India, 1918 flu pandemic: India was the worst hit by the pandemic (even Mohandas Gandhi, an architect of India’s independence, contracted the flu) with about 18 million people killed. The pandemic’s toll on society revolutionized the notion of public health and expanded healthcare in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere, but not in India, despite being part of the British empire at the time. Fast forward to today, India continues to bear a considerable burden of pandemic deaths. With over a billion people, overcrowded cities, rampant malnutrition and poverty, millions of migrant laborers, and a precarious healthcare system, it faced a massive COVID surge in April and May of this year. Overwhelmed crematories and high-priced services have driven many to dispose bodies in rivers, as they did in 1918.  Also, after the 1918 Influenza, international agreements were broadened to consider more diseases "reportable," in hopes of controlling future epidemics more quickly, notes Hardy. 
  • England, early 1800s: During this time period, human waste accumulated in homes and was then disposed of in unsanitary ways, such as in London’s River Thames, which was also used for drinking water. The cesspools, filth, smell and eventual realization that the water people were drinking was possibly exposing them to disease such as cholera, were contributing factors in developing sanitary reforms in the 19th century. The state realized it must intervene and have a stronger role in public health. The First International Sanitary Conference was held in Paris in 1851, largely in response to a series of cholera pandemics that had ravaged Europe. Participating countries agreed on draft regulations for quarantine and other measures to control outbreaks of epidemic disease. 
  • Tuberculosis in 19th century: Sometimes described as a "slow" epidemic, tuberculosis moved through Europe and the U.S. during the nineteenth century. One of the driving factors for the development of technologies in medicine like the stethoscope, invented by Parisian doctor René Laennec in 1816, was the need to better understand and diagnose tuberculosis.  

Is the pandemic likely to influence xenophobia and racial inequalities?  

The COVID-19 pandemic has already led to increased discrimination and violence against people from marginalized groups, notes Pai. An example is the rising number of hate crimes against Asian Americans, which is often linked to rhetoric that blames Asians for the spread of COVID-19, and against Muslims, a religious minority in India, that blames them for the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country.  

Throughout history, similar scapegoating of those who are different has emerged during pandemics — sometimes with dire consequences.  

  • In the 1347-51 bubonic plague that swept the European continent, Jewish communities were wrongly accused of spreading the “Black Death” and therefore ostracized and massacred.  
  • The 1901 bubonic plague in Cape Town, South Africa, while an epidemic and not a pandemic, became an opportunity to apply segregation policies and racist responses to health concerns: the city’s black population were forcibly removed, quarantined, and isolated from the white Europeans, laying the foundation for apartheid. 
  • Emphasizing the “foreignness” of pandemics when naming diseases has harmed the targeted population. Syphilis was famously always called by an enemy's name. For example, the Italians called it the French disease and the Dutch called it the Spanish disease. The 1918 pandemic became the “Spanish” flu even though the microbe did not originate there. Spain got the blame because of its neutrality during the first world war. Publicly reporting the outbreak (unlike other European countries who kept it a secret) created the false impression that the influenza was a Spanish disease and stigmatized its population. A few years ago, during the 2013-16 Ebola pandemic centered in West Africa, African immigrants in the U.S. experienced discrimination. More recently, a public health study has found that calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” as the former U.S. president had done in March 2020, increased the number of coronavirus-related tweets with anti-Asian hashtags that triggered racially motivated harassment and assaults against the community.  

Pandemics tend to amplify racial disparities, too. Nationwide data reveal that Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American communities suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus with higher rates of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. A historical antecedent is the 1918 influenza pandemic, when Black Americans had a higher-case fatality rate than white Americans. 

 Is the pandemic likely to influence spirituality?  

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have boosted faith for some. A Pew Research Center study from summer 2020 shows that about 28 percent of Americans report stronger personal faith because of the pandemic. Turning to faith in trying times of illness and death is also documented throughout history.  

  • During the Justinian plague & Black Death, many people in the Christian and Islamic world turned to religion, in part, because they had no other useful explanation of how it happened. Opinions varied on whether God had sent it because someone or society was sinful or demons had somehow brought it. In either case, they thought religious observance might set things straight. However, it didn’t seem to work. Clergy, including priests who had close contact with the dying when administering last rites and monks/nuns who lived in close quarters, were often hit hard. This caused some people to turn away from God. 
  • After the Black Death in Europe, art works that focused on death such as “Danse Macabre” and “Memento Mori” were created. One message of this art was that everyone — from the pope to a laborer — might be subject to death at any moment, so you should live such that you're always right with God just in case. 

 Are our vaccination efforts likely to be successful?  

The effectiveness of vaccines, resistance to getting vaccines and virus variants are some examples of the lingering questions we have related to whether mass vaccinations for COVID-19 will ultimately work long-term.  

A source of hope may be looking at major achievements with vaccinations throughout history. Hardy points to a couple.  

  • Smallpox: Inoculation or variolation against smallpox was practiced in Asia and Africa for centuries before Europeans found out about it. Then, George Washington ordered the Continental Army to be inoculated against smallpox during the American Revolution, a move that is credited with playing a major factor in the outcome of the war. The later method of using the related but less severe cowpox to provide crossover immunity to smallpox led to efforts to expand vaccination to the entire population beginning in nineteenth century Britain. Using cowpox to expand vaccinations was a controversial move, which some resisted. However, it allowed the eventual global eradication of the smallpox virus, the only human virus for which that’s been accomplished so far.  
  • Polio: Similarly, efforts to vaccinate the entire population against polio once a vaccine was developed in the late 1950s led to the elimination of a devastating disease that had previously been an epidemic in the U.S. and many other countries, though it still exists in a few small pockets globally.