With sweeping travel and social distancing restrictions being placed on cities and communities throughout the world in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, most people are facing a reality not experienced in their lifetimes. However, there is a documented precedent of infectious disease outbreaks like this one in relatively recent history — even here in the United States.
SARS, MERS, Ebola, and the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 are all examples of recent infectious disease outbreaks. Some like Ebola had extremely high mortality rates, initially as high as 40%. Still, of these, only the 1918 Flu led to worldwide quarantines and the closing of public gathering places (sporting events, restaurants and bars, churches, etc.) to the extent that we have seen with COVID-19. Since 1918 predates our ability to treat and vaccinate against viral enemies, many Americans may have assumed such drastic isolation measures (which date at least to the plague epidemics of the 13th and 14th centuries) would never be needed again. Unfortunately, the easy transmittability of this virus combined with its very serious effects on older persons forced public health officials across the globe to resort to these measures, in order to prevent medical care systems from being overwhelmed and a corresponding increase in deaths due to the disease.
COVID-19’s initial mortality rate (as estimated by the WHO) appears to be broadly comparable to that of the 1918 Flu. However, with the current world population roughly 4 times greater than it was in 1918, a even a COVID-19 mortality rate similar to that of the 1918 Flu would mean hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions of deaths worldwide.
While the reality of COVID-19’s impacts are increasingly grim and tragic, it has also drawn attention to the fact that infectious disease pandemics seem to be happening with both increased frequency and greater geographical spread. Globalization, increasing population density, and global warming are all key factors that may make pandemics like the one we’re facing today more and more likely in years to come. Improving citizen awareness of the importance of both routine (handwashing) and emergency (quarantine) public health measures, as well as a much more nimble response from the world’s governments, will be needed to deal with future such outbreaks in a way that best protects both human life and economic activity.