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1918 pandemic ward, via Wikipedia, COMMONS

So far one in a thousand Americans has died from COVID. The numbers keep climbing, but they are so high that Americans have become numb to them. Unless you are directly affected I suppose. Yes, there are people out there who are lucky enough were none in their direct family or group of friends has gotten infected. At this point, there is a good chance you know either family or friends, or both, who have gotten ill or died. Yet, we have a fatigued population that at this point is resisting doing any of the measures that we need in order to save lives.

I wish I were surprised. And now let me go to my youth when I was a medic in another country, and for shits and giggles, we did a pandemic sand table exercise. Fun fact, I did not realize that was the name of the exercise. We wanted to both best case and worst case a pandemic and we used as a model the 1918 pandemic. There were a few things we were working with. The first was that Mexico has no idea how many people died due to the pandemic. Partly, the country was just emerging from a civil war, and the federal government was very weak. The second issue is that statistics were far less prevalent then.

We mostly looked at the United States, because in 1918 those are the best statistics, even if they are scarily spotty as well. We examined the mistakes made at the time and plotted them in our mental exercise. We used Economics Graduate students to plot into exercise things like lockdowns. And of course, we also had to take into account the politics of placing the economy ahead of controlling the infection or controlling the infection ahead of the economy.

We looked at things like the St Louis reaction to the Influenza pandemic versus Philadephia, The former closed far longer and did enforce the rules, while the latter, quite frankly, did not take it seriously. The former recovered faster than the latter when the pandemic was finally over. There were some riots during the pandemic, though mostly not in the United States. However, the red summer is thought to be connected.

The flu pandemic, the so-called “red summer” race riots of 1919 and World War I are integrally connected, as historian and author Kenneth C. Davis said.

“I think absolutely the Spanish Flu had something to do with the red summer,” said Davis, author of “More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.” “I don’t want to overstate that it was the pandemic, but I don’t think you can disassociate or disconnect anything about the period from 1918 to 1919, 1920, from the flu and the war, because they’re completely interconnected.”

Of course, we made some assumptions based on the nature of Influenza that is different from COVID.

  • Fast infection rates would lead to hospitals getting slammed, at best within a week.

So fast forwards to today and what we are seeing in real life. This is important. The first major difference in 2020 is that we have the technical ability to come up with vaccines, This is a double-edged sword since some people will drop their guard. But the second is the length that it takes for caseload to translate into patient load in hospitals. In our simulation, we knew that this would not be that much of an issue, since seventy-two hours tops meant that people who were sick and ended up in ICU would have a direct connection to recent memory. This is why I suspect certain ideas, like hospitals are not truly full, are circulating. There is a distance between the first diagnosis of deadly illness. On average this happens around day ten. Cytokine storms killed people within 12 hours in 1918, so this was very real. Some people dropped dead in the street or on public transport.

The length of the waves was shorter, and that has to do with the nature of that influenza strain. So people did not have to do the dance for months on end. Of course, many people died from treatable (today) secondary bacterial pneumonia. That took a tad longer. Influenza, even during wartime, was very much in the minds of people, even if the Feds did nothing.

Yes, troop trains left bases full of young men who were alive and arrived at their destinations as death trains. People currently are hearing of the deaths in hospitals, but it is far removed from everyday life and unless you have been directly affected it is easy to ignore. Nobody is dropping dead in the street.

Sociological Component

One thing we considered was precisely that sociological component that I believe is now at play in the United States. When people are told to do this for as long as we have, and cannot see the effects of their actions, they tend to lose trust. It does not help that political leaders are not walking the walk. This ranges from the president to a few governors, and even mayors. If you are going to tell people NOT to travel or gather at restaurants, you don’t do that. This has only raised the specter of elites telling people what to do, without them doing it,

As I posted above, our simulation did not have UBI in it, but the lack of real support has created a situation where people need to work, forget the consequences. So people are going to work, as long as they can, and spreading the disease. Or business owners are opening up because they need to pay the rent. These are realities that our national policy has not addressed. The CARES Act helped, but at this point, we should be considering UBI, targetted if you need to, and rent forgiveness

But property owners! I hear you, they should be compensated by the state at least to the cost of their taxes, bank loans, and some maintenance. This will cost money, but we should be on a wartime footing. Not doing this is creating the kind of tension that in our simulations led to civil unrest, where, being Mexico, the army was involved.

This is deepening our mental health issues. Why? We all need to eat. It is also making the social divisions in the country far deeper than they already were. It is also leading to far more conspiracy theories becoming mainstream, partly because people are not seeing the effect of the pandemic. At this point, hospital wards must be on our evening news and not just B Roll from last week.

I am not sure messaging about masks and social distancing is going to work because people are already distrustful of the state and its motives. We saw that in our mental exercise a few times, and we had no idea what to do with that. Remember, this was not a formal exercise, just one we did for the fun of it…though in the end a writeup was produced.

At this point, I honestly expect more than just Open the State far-right groups trying to recall governors and taking over statehouses. Why? People are literally desperate and are looking for excuses to do things that endanger the polity. What we also did find is that fines and enforcement were critical. This has not happened and lockdowns are hardly effective when police and sheriffs departments refuse to do that.

This also leads to another reality. Myself, I am quite angry at people who are blithely ignoring health orders. They are going to lengthen the stay at home orders, or at least for those of us who follow the rules. They are also ensuring that the economic damage deepens. Yet, they are the least aware people you will meet. Partly it is their anger at this, but there is a level of sociopathy in their attitude. We see a version of them every major wildfire, These are the people who refuse to evacuate and put firefighters' lives at risk in every major fire. It is the same mentality that also refuses to leave during storms and flood events. Except that now we are seeing them become very active on social media trying to create a raucous, or taking over statehouses.

We are ten months on. They will not change. But their actions are ensuring that we have deeper economic damage. If the feds had supported everybody who had to stay home from the beginning with wage support beyond unemployment, for as long as this takes, we might have avoided some of this. For the moment, we may still see civil unrest, since many of these people also believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump.

And here I come into the real issue. Do we call them online? I am torn. On the one hand, they are not going to change, But on the other, their actions are a contagion of another sort. Again, this mass misinformation we did not take into account, but we did not have Facebook. So if we call them, we risk alienating others, and I know I have. But not calling them out means we are mostly facing people who will keep spreading lies. This contagion is a problem, and just as potentially deadly as COVID. Not calling them out and not giving any oxygen to their claims, may quiet the spread, or drive it into deep echo chambers that become even less penetrable. This is a serious problem. We also know normal health communications are not working and that many of them are already resistant to vaccines, our ticket out.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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