REFLECTION: Did history teach us nothing?

Barely a year into arguably the biggest pandemic in over a century, and tensions between groups and nations have already increased. Read Matin's opinion on the political aspects of the pandemic and whether we are doing any better than we were in 1918.

REFLECTION: Did history teach us nothing?
'Wash your hands' by @milie.dsgn. © 2020 Emilie Schaefer and What Is Science Even?

For almost a year now, we have seen an overwhelmingly high caseload of the novel Coronavirus Disease of 2019 (COVID-19). However, behind all the epidemiological issues lies a vast world of politically motivated decisions and rhetoric that are disrupting the view on the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has been compared to the 1918 Influenza pandemic, but beyond the global impact and symptoms there are not many biological similarities between the two causative agents: they are different types of viruses. It is perhaps more suitable to compare the politics of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemics, than the science. In my previous article on the 1918 pandemic, I outlined three things that have been elucidated regarding the 1918 pandemic: a) the scapegoating, b) the lack of reporting numbers, and c) the lack of international cooperation. If this sounds all too familiar, it’s because it is.


Scapegoating. A rhetoric predominantly driven by the 45th President of the United States, terms such as “Kung Flu” were coined early in the pandemic in an attempt to oust China [1, 2]. There is a direct line from the originally coined term for the 1918 pandemic – “Spanish Flu” – and this one. Despite both terms being deceiving and incorrect, they have undoubtedly both become manifested in the everyday speech of many people. This outbreak may have originated in China; however, it does not give a free pass to any leaders to distance themselves from the responsibility that is theirs. For one thing, western society has been responsible for the spread of their fair share of viral disease: E.g. the spread of aedes aegypti (a mosquito that spreads yellow fever viruses, Zika virus, Dengue virus, etc.) out of Africa [3, 4], the spread of Ebola virus (as fruit bats emigrate as a result of deforestations) [5], etc.

The truth of the matter is that the news about the virus already broke out in January. In the same month several calls for action came: on the 22nd Public Health England issued a statement on increased monitoring [6], on the 24th, a paper was published in The Lancet calling for global concern [7], on the 26th BBC news presented the story “China coronavirus ‘spreads before symptoms show’” [8], and the WHO published a statement and call for action following their emergency meeting on the 30th [9]. Despite this, many countries failed to show any response or preparedness (just in case) to the knowledge thereof. Just a couple of weeks ago, President Trump was called out on his failure to respond by the Editors of the New England Journal of Medicine.

It is one thing to point fingers at China, another is beginning to blame other countries too. Spain yet again made the headlines during the start of a pandemic due to their seemingly inability to control the pandemic. With the media focusing their attention on how they put in place strict lockdown rules, the virus did seem to take over other countries too. The United Kingdom, especially, did not do any better. It is very clear that once again Spain (and Italy) is blamed for the presence of COVID-19 in Europe, just as they were for the flu in 1918. With government positions at stake, the popularity contest continues, and due to the inaction by governments, other countries are being blamed. This goes beyond this international blame game, but even within nations certain demographics are being blamed for the persistence of this infectious disease [10, 11, 12]. Not on a scientific basis though, but mere speculation. A dangerous game. A polarizing game. One not too unfamiliar in European history unfortunately.


Reporting numbers. The way in which the western powers have been pointing fingers, and the underlying arguments they use to do so seems awfully ironic. The U.S. especially has been blaming China for falsifying their data. Not only this, but the President has called out WHO for collusion, leading to the cutting of U.S. funding of the WHO [13, 14]. All the while downplaying the significance of the pandemic himself [15]. This is rather disturbing considering the changing testing strategy in the U.S. depending on what would put them in a better light. I can recommend watching the COVID-19 segment of the Axios interview with Trump.
The UK also decided on a quite different strategy than many other countries. By only testing symptomatic people in contrast to other countries testing everyone; by increasing the likelihood of false negatives by relying on untrained people to do swabs on themselves, the UK does not have a good enough or reliable dataset to make any appropriate decisions really. These discrepancies are more likely to lead to false negatives than anything, and so begs the question on whether this is a deliberate way of reducing the reported number of cases? Is this a repeat of 1918?


Cooperation. With leaders blaming each other, politicians pointing fingers, and scientists being discredited based on speculation, the world has failed to cooperate to the full extent of what platforms such as the WHO amongst others can provide. This was one of the underlying reasons for the rapid spread of the 1918 Influenza. Firstly, the world was preoccupied with WWI, and thus incapable of cooperation. Secondly, no real framework or infrastructures for such cooperation existed. However, despite the lack of world wars, but the presence of incredible global health infrastructures, we have again failed to cooperate.
From a more scientific perspective, the lack of cooperation has led to inconsistencies in guidelines, responses, and reporting of numbers. Countries have time and again ignored the advice of the WHO and trusted their own epidemiologists over what the biggest health organizations have suggested. This is very well reflected in the inability for us to compare the mortality and infection rates of neighboring nations, due to different methods and records of cases. The more political aspect is the lack of unity. Despite previous outbreaks having shown great responses (HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1980s, SARS outbreak of 2003, 2009 swine flu pandemic, West African Ebola virus epidemic), this pandemic was politicized and probably attempted to be used to drive agendas.


So when it comes to whether we’ve learned from history, have we failed? Are we no better than before? I don’t think so but I did expect more from us.


Matin Mahmoudi




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