Tag Archives: pandemic
Lockdowns, second waves and burn outs. Spanish flu’s clues about how coronavirus might play out in Australia
In a remarkable coincidence, the first media reports about Spanish flu and COVID-19 in Australia both occurred on January 25 – exactly 101 years apart.
This is not the only similarity between the two pandemics.
Although history does not repeat, it rhymes. The story of how Australia – and particular the NSW government – handled Spanish flu in 1919 provides some clues about how COVID-19 might play out here in 2020.
Spanish flu arrives
Australia’s first case of Spanish flu was likely admitted to hospital in Melbourne on January 9 1919, though it was not diagnosed as such at the time. Ten days later, there were 50 to 100 cases.
Commonwealth and Victorian health authorities initially believed the outbreak was a local variety of influenza prevalent in late 1918.
Consequently, Victoria delayed until January 28 notifying the Commonwealth, as required by a 1918 federal-state agreement designed to coordinate state responses.
Meanwhile, travellers from Melbourne had carried the disease to NSW. On January 25, Sydney’s newspapers reported that a returned soldier from Melbourne was in hospital at Randwick with suspected pneumonic influenza.
Shutdown circa 1919: libraries, theatres, churches close
Acting quickly, in late January, the NSW government ordered “everyone shall wear a mask,” while all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls, and places of indoor public entertainment in metropolitan Sydney were told to close.
It also imposed restrictions on travel from Victoria in breach of the federal-state agreement.
Thereafter, each state went its own way and the Commonwealth, with few powers and little money compared with today, effectively left them to it.
Generally, the restrictions were received with little demur. But inconsistencies led to complaints, especially from churches and the owners of theatres and racecourses.
People were allowed to ride in crowded public transport to thronged beaches. But masked churchgoers, observing physical distancing, were forbidden to assemble outside for worship.
Later, crowds of spectators would be permitted to watch football matches while racecourses were closed.
Spanish flu subsides
Nevertheless, NSW’s prompt and thorough application of restrictions initially proved successful.
During February, Sydney’s hospital admissions were only 139, while total deaths across the state were 15. By contrast, Victoria, which had taken three weeks before introducing more limited restrictions, recorded 489 deaths.
At the end of February, NSW lifted most restrictions.
Even so, the state government did not escape a political attack. The Labor opposition accused it of overreacting and imposing unnecessary economic and social burdens on people. It was particularly critical that the order requiring mask-wearing was not limited to confined spaces, such as public transport.
There was also debate about the usefulness of closing schools, especially in the metropolitan area.
But then it returns
In mid-March, new cases began to rise. Chastened by the criticism of its earlier measures, the government delayed reimposing restrictions until early April, allowing the virus to take hold.
This led The Catholic Press to declare
the Ministry fiddled for popularity while the country was threatened with this terrible pestilence.
Sydney’s hospital capacity was exceeded and the state’s death toll for April totalled 1,395. Then the numbers began falling again. After ten weeks the epidemic seemed to have run its course, but as May turned to June, new cases appeared.
The resurgence came with a virulence surpassing the worst days of April. This time, notwithstanding a mounting death toll, the NSW cabinet decided against reinstating restrictions, but urged people to impose their own restraints.
The government goes for “burn out”
After two unsuccessful attempts to defeat the epidemic – at great social and economic cost – the government decided to let it take its course.
It hoped the public by now realised the gravity of the danger and that it should be sufficient to warn them to avoid the chances of infection. The Sydney Morning Herald concurred, declaring
there is a stage at which governmental responsibility for the public health ends.
The second wave’s peak arrived in the first week of July, with 850 deaths across NSW and 2,400 for the month. Sydney’s hospital capacity again was exceeded. Then, as in April, the numbers began to decline. In August the epidemic was officially declared over.
Cases continued intermittently for months, but by October, admissions and deaths were in single figures. Like its predecessor, the second wave lasted ten weeks. But this time the epidemic did not return.
More than 12,000 Australians had died.
While Victoria had suffered badly early on compared to NSW, in the end, NSW had more deaths than Victoria – about 6,000 compared to 3,500. The NSW government’s decision not to restore restrictions saw the epidemic “burn out”, but at a terrible cost in lives.
That decision did not cause a ripple of objection. At the NSW state elections in March 1920, Spanish flu was not even a campaign issue.
The lessons of 1919
In many ways we have learned the lessons of 1919.
We have better federal-state coordination, sophisticated testing and contact tracing, staged lifting of restrictions and improved knowledge of virology.
But in other ways we have not learned the lessons.
Yet, we are still to face the most difficult question of all.
The Spanish flu demonstrated that a suppression strategy requires rounds of restrictions and relaxations. And that these involve significant social and economic costs.
With the federal and state governments’ current suppression strategies we are already seeing signs of social and economic stress, and this is just round one.
Would Australians today tolerate a “burn out”?
The Spanish flu experience also showed that a “burn out” strategy is costly in lives – nowadays it would be measured in tens of thousands. Would Australians today abide such an outcome as people did in 1919?
It is not as if Australians back then were more trusting of their political leaders than we are today. In fact, in the wake of the wartime split in the Labor Party and shifting political allegiances, respect for political leaders was at a low ebb in Australia.
A more likely explanation is that people then were prepared to tolerate a death toll that Australians today would find unacceptable. People in 1919 were much more familiar with death from infectious diseases.
Also, they had just emerged from a world war in which 60,000 Australians had died. These days the death of a single soldier in combat prompts national mourning.
Yet, in the absence of an effective vaccine, governments may end up facing a “Sophie’s Choice”: is the community willing and able to sustain repeated and costly disruptions in order to defeat this epidemic or, as the NSW cabinet decided in 1919, is it better to let it run its course notwithstanding the cost in lives?
Language always tells a story. As COVID-19 shakes the world, many of the words we’re using to describe it originated during earlier calamities – and have colourful tales behind them.
In the Middle Ages, for example, fast-spreading infectious diseases were known as plagues – as in the Bubonic plague, named for the characteristic swellings (or buboes) that appear in the groin or armpit. With its origins in the Latin word plaga meaning “stroke” or “wound”, plague came to refer to a wider scourge through its use to describe the ten plagues suffered by the Egyptians in the biblical book of Exodus.
An alternative term, pestilence, derives from Latin pestis (“plague”), which is also the origin of French peste, the title of the 1947 novel by Albert Camus (La Peste, or The Plague) which has soared up the bestseller charts in recent weeks. Latin pestis also gives us pest, now used to describe animals that destroy crops, or any general nuisance or irritant. Indeed, the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague is called Yersinia pestis.
The Bubonic plague outbreak of the 14th century was also known as the Great Mortality or the Great Death. The Black Death, which is now most widely used to describe that catastrophe, is, in fact, a 17th-century translation of a Danish name for the disease: “Den Sorte Død”.
Snake venom, the original ‘virus’
The later plagues of the 17th century led to the coining of the word epidemic. This came from a Greek word meaning “prevalent”, from epi “upon” and demos “people”. The more severe pandemic is so called because it affects everyone (from Greek pan “all”).
A more recent coinage, infodemic, a blend of info and epidemic, was introduced in 2003 to refer to the deluge of misinformation and fake news that accompanied the outbreak of SARS (an acronym formed from the initial letters of “severe acute respiratory syndrome”).
The 17th-century equivalent of social distancing was “avoiding someone like the plague”. According to Samuel Pepys’s account of the outbreak that ravaged London in 1665, infected houses were marked with a red cross and had the words “Lord have mercy upon us” inscribed on the doors. Best to avoid properties so marked.
The current pandemic, COVID-19, is a contracted form of Coronavirus disease 2019. The term for this genus of viruses was coined in 1968 and referred to their appearance under the microscope, which reveals a distinctive halo or crown (Latin corona). Virus comes from a Latin word meaning “poison”, first used in English to describe a snake’s venom.
The race to find a vaccine has focused on the team at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, named for Edward Jenner (1749-1823). It was his discovery that contact with cowpox resulted in milkmaids becoming immune to the more severe strain found in smallpox. This discovery is behind the term vaccine (from the Latin vacca “cow”) which gives individuals immunity (originally a term certifying exemption from public service). Inoculation was initially a horticultural term describing the grafting of a bud into a plant: from Latin oculus, meaning “bud” as well as “eye” (as in binoculars “having two eyes”).
Although we are currently adjusting to social distancing as part of the “new normal”, the term itself has been around since the 1950s. It was initially coined by sociologists to describe individuals or groups deliberately adopting a policy of social or emotional detachment.
A history of English … in five words
Its use to refer to a strategy for limiting the spread of a disease goes back to the early 2000s, with reference to outbreaks of flu. Flu is a shortening of influenza, adopted into English from Italian following a major outbreak which began in Italy in 1743. Although it is often called the Spanish flu, the strain that triggered the pandemic of 1918 most likely began elsewhere, although its origins are uncertain. Its name derives from a particularly severe outbreak in Spain.
To the watchtower
Self-isolation, the measure of protection which involves deliberately cutting oneself off from others, is first recorded in the 1830s – isolate goes back to the Latin insulatus “insulated”, from insula “island”. An extended mode of isolation, known as quarantine, is from the Italian quarantina referring to “40 days”. The specific period derives from its original use to refer to the period of fasting in the wilderness undertaken by Jesus in the Christian gospels.
Lockdown, the most extreme form of social containment, in which citizens must remain in their homes at all times, comes from its use in prisons to describe a period of extended confinement following a disturbance.
Many governments have recently announced a gradual easing of restrictions and a call for citizens to “stay alert”. While some have expressed confusion over this message, for etymologists the required response is perfectly clear: we should all take to the nearest tall building, since alert is from the Italian all’erta “to the watchtower”.
One of the haunting images of this pandemic will be stationary cruise ships – deadly carriers of COVID-19 – at anchor in harbours and unwanted. Docked in ports and feared.
The news of the dramatic spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess from early February made the news real for many Australians who’d enjoyed holidays on the seas. Quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, over 700 of the ship’s crew and passengers became infected. To date, 14 deaths have been recorded.
The Diamond Princess’s sister ship, the Ruby Princess, brought the pandemic to Australian shores. Now under criminal investigation, the events of the Ruby Princess forced a spotlight on the petri dish cruise ships can become. The ship has been linked to 21 deaths.
History shows the devastating role ships can play in transmitting viruses across vast continents and over many centuries.
Rats in the ranks
Merchant ships carrying rats with infected fleas were transmitters of the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) that devastated the Byzantine Empire.
Ships carrying grain from Egypt were home to flea-infested rats that fed off the granaries. Contantinople was especially inflicted, with estimates as high as 5,000 casualties a day. Globally, up to 50 million people are estimated to have been killed – half the world’s population.
The Black Death was also carried by rats on merchant ships through the trade routes of Europe. It struck Europe in 1347, when 12 ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.
Subsequently called “death ships”, those on board were either dead or sick. Soon, the Black Death spread to ports around the world, such as Marseilles, Rome and Florence, and by 1348 had reached London with devastating impact.
The Italian writer, poet and scholar, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote how terror swept through Florence with relatives deserting infected family members. Almost inconceivably, he wrote, “fathers and mothers refused to nurse their own children, as though they did not belong to them”.
Ships started being turned away from European ports in 1347. Venice was the first city to close, with those permitted to enter forced into a 40-day quarantine: the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian quarantena, or 40 days.
By January 1349, mass graves proliferated outside of London to bury the increasing numbers of dead.
Army and naval ships, as well as travellers around the globe, also carried cholera pandemics throughout the 19th century. In the first pandemic in 1817, British army and navy ships are believed to have spread cholera beyond India where the outbreaks originated.
By the 1820s, cholera had spread throughout Asia, reaching Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan through shipping. British troops spread it to the Persian Gulf, eventually moving through Turkey and Syria.
Subsequent outbreaks from the 1820s through to the 1860s relied on trade and troops to spread the disease across continents.
At war with the Spanish Flu
The Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 was originally carried by soldiers on overcrowded troop ships during the first world war. The rate of transmission on these ships was rapid, and soldiers died in large numbers.
One New Zealand rifleman wrote in his diary in September 1918:
More deaths and burials total now 42. A crying shame but it is only to be expected when human beings are herded together the way they have been on this boat.
The flu was transmitted throughout Europe in France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. Three-quarters of French troops and over half of British troops fell ill in 1918. Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers travelling on troop ships across the Atlantic and back provided the perfect conditions for transmission.
The fate of cruising
A new and lethal carrier in the 21st century has emerged in the pleasure industry of cruise ships. The explosion of cruise holidays in the past 20 years has led to a proliferation of luxury liners plying the seas.
Like historical pandemics, the current crisis shares the characteristic of rapid spread through ships.
The unknown is in what form cruise ships will continue to operate. Unlike the port-to-port trade and armed forces that carried viruses across continents centuries ago, the services cruise lines offer are non-essential.
Whatever happens, the global spread of COVID-19 reminds us “death ships” are an enduring feature of the history of pandemics.
1918 flu pandemic killed 12 million Indians, and British overlords’ indifference strengthened the anti-colonial movement
In India, during the 1918 influenza pandemic, a staggering 12 to 13 million people died, the vast majority between the months of September and December. According to an eyewitness, “There was none to remove the dead bodies and the jackals made a feast.”
At the time of the pandemic, India had been under British colonial rule for over 150 years. The fortunes of the British colonizers had always been vastly different from those of the Indian people, and nowhere was the split more stark than during the influenza pandemic, as I discovered while researching my Ph.D. on the subject.
The resulting devastation would eventually lead to huge changes in India – and the British Empire.
From Kansas to Mumbai
During the early months of 1918, the virus incubated throughout the American Midwest, eventually making its way east, where it traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with soldiers deploying for WWI.
Introduced into the trenches on Europe’s Western Front, the virus tore through the already weakened troops. As the war approached its conclusion, the virus followed both commercial shipping routes and military transports to infect almost every corner of the globe. It arrived in Mumbai in late May.
When the first wave of the pandemic arrived, it was not particularly deadly. The only notice British officials took of it was its effect on some workers. A report noted, “As the season for cutting grass began … people were so weak as to be unable to do a full day’s work.”
By September, the story began to change. Mumbai was still the center of infection, likely due to its position as a commercial and civic hub. On Sept. 19, an English-language newspaper reported 293 influenza deaths had occurred there, but assured its readers “The worst is now reached.”
Instead, the virus tore through the subcontinent, following trade and postal routes. Catastrophe and death overwhelmed cities and rural villages alike. Indian newspapers reported that crematoria were receiving between 150 to 200 bodies per day. According to one observer, “The burning ghats and burial grounds were literally swamped with corpses; whilst an even greater number awaited removal.”
But influenza did not strike everyone equally. Most British people in India lived in spacious houses with gardens and yards, compared to the lower classes of city-dwelling Indians, who lived in densely populated areas. Many British also employed household staff to care for them – in times of health and sickness – so they were only lightly touched by the pandemic and were largely unconcerned by the chaos sweeping through the country.
In his official correspondence in early December, the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces did not even mention influenza, instead noting “Everything is very dry; but I managed to get two hundred couple of snipe so far this season.”
While the pandemic was of little consequence to many British residents of India, the perception was wildly different among the Indian people, who spoke of universal devastation. A letter published in a periodical lamented, “India perhaps never saw such hard times before. There is wailing on all sides. … There is neither village nor town throughout the length and breadth of the country which has not paid a heavy toll.”
Elsewhere, the Sanitary Commissioner of the Punjab noted, “the streets and lanes of cities were littered with dead and dying people … nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned.”
In the end, areas in the north and west of India saw death rates between 4.5% and 6% of their total populations, while the south and east – where the virus arrived slightly later, as it was waning – generally lost between 1.5% and 3%.
Geography wasn’t the only dividing factor, however. In Mumbai, almost seven-and-a-half times as many lower-caste Indians died as compared to their British counterparts – 61.6 per thousand versus 8.3 per thousand.
Among Indians in Mumbai, socioeconomic disparities in addition to race accounted for these differing mortality rates.
The Health Officer for Calcutta remarked on the stark difference in death rates between British and lower-class Indians: “The excessive mortality in Kidderpore appears to be due mainly to the large coolie population, ignorant and poverty-stricken, living under most insanitary conditions in damp, dark, dirty huts. They are a difficult class to deal with.”
Death tolls across India generally hit their peak in October, with a slow tapering into November and December. A high ranking British official wrote in December, “A good winter rain will put everything right and … things will gradually rectify themselves.”
Normalcy, however, did not quite return to India. The spring of 1919 would see the British atrocities at Amritsar and shortly thereafter the launch of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Influenza became one more example of British injustice that spurred Indian people on in their fight for independence. A periodical published by the human rights activist Mahatma Gandhi stated, “In no other civilized country could a government have left things so much undone as did the Government of India did during the prevalence of such a terrible and catastrophic epidemic.”
The long, slow death of the British Empire had begun.
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The coronavirus can infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality rates between rich and poor.
The wealthy work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes, while the urban poor are packed into small apartments and compelled to keep showing up to work.
As a medievalist, I’ve seen a version of this story before.
Following the 1348 Black Death in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novellas titled, “The Decameron.” These stories, though fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how some of the same fissures opened up between the rich and the poor. Cultural historians today see “The Decameron” as an invaluable source of information on everyday life in 14th-century Italy.
Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote, in “The Decameron,” stories about merchants and servants. This was unusual for his time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the lives of the nobility.
“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.
In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls.”
Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day” and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas, laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with never a doctor to attend them.”
After the bleak description of the plague, Boccaccio shifts to the 100 stories. They’re narrated by 10 nobles who have fled the pallor of death hanging over Florence to luxuriate in amply stocked country mansions. From there, they tell their tales.
One key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and advantage can impair people’s abilities to empathize with the hardships of others. Boccaccio begins the forward with the proverb, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who are afflicted.” Yet in many of the tales he goes on to present characters who are sharply indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own drives and ambition.
In one fantasy story, a dead man returns from hell every Friday and ritually slaughters the same woman who had rejected him when he was alive. In another, a widow fends off a leering priest by tricking him into sleeping with her maid. In a third, the narrator praises a character for his undying loyalty to his friend when, in fact, he has profoundly betrayed that friend over many years.
Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation.
Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life?
In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 16, 2020.
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This isn’t the first global pandemic, and it won’t be the last. Here’s what we’ve learned from 4 others throughout history
The course of human history has been shaped by infectious diseases, and the current crisis certainly won’t be the last time.
However, we can capitalise on the knowledge gained from past experiences, and reflect on how we’re better off this time around.
1. The Plague, or ‘Black Death’ (14th Century)
The 200-year long Plague of Justinian began in 541 CE, wiping out millions in several waves across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and crimping the expansionary aspirations of the Roman Empire (although some scholars argue that its impact has been overstated).
Perhaps one of the greatest public health legacies to have emerged from the 14th century plague pandemic is the concept of “quarantine”, from the Venetian term “quarantena” meaning forty days.
The 14th century Black Death pandemic is thought to have catalysed enormous societal, economic, artistic and cultural reforms in Medieval Europe. It illustrates how infectious disease pandemics can be major turning points in history, with lasting impacts.
For example, widespread death caused labour shortages across feudal society, and often led to higher wages, cheaper land, better living conditions and increased freedoms for the lower class.
Various authorities lost credibility, since they were seen to have failed to protect communities from the overwhelming devastation of plague. People began to openly question long held certainties around societal structure, traditions, and religious orthodoxy.
The Black Death also had profound effects on art and literature, which took on more pessimistic and morbid themes. There were vivid depictions of violence and death in Biblical narratives,
still seen in many Christian places of worship across Europe.
How COVID-19 will reshape our culture, and what unexpected influence it will have for generations to come is unknown. There are already clear economic changes arising from this outbreak, as some industries rise, others fall and some businesses seem likely to disappear forever.
COVID-19 may permanently normalise the use of virtual technologies for socialising, business, education, healthcare, religious worship and even government.
2. Spanish influenza (1918)
The 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic’s reputation as one of the deadliest in human history is due to a complex interplay between how the virus works, the immune response and the social context in which it spread.
It arose in a world left vulnerable by the preceding four years of World War I. Malnutrition and overcrowding were common.
Around 500 million people were infected – a third of the global population at the time – leading to 50-100 million deaths.
A unique characteristic of infection was its tendency to kill healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.
At the time, influenza infection was attributed to a bacterium (Haemophilus influenzae) rather than a virus. Antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections were still more than a decade away, and intensive care wards with mechanical ventilators were unheard of.
Clearly, our medical and scientific understanding of the ‘flu in 1918 made it difficult to combat. However, public health interventions, including quarantine, the use of face masks and bans on mass gatherings helped limit the spread in some areas, building on prior successes in controlling tuberculosis, cholera and other infectious diseases.
Australia imposed maritime quarantine, requiring all arriving ships to be cleared by Commonwealth Quarantine Officials before disembarkation. That likely delayed and reduced the Spanish flu impact on Australia, and had secondary effects on the other Pacific Islands.
The effect of maritime quarantine was most striking in Western and American Samoa, with the latter enforcing strict quarantine and experiencing no deaths. By contrast, 25% of Western Samoans died, after influenza was introduced by a ship from New Zealand.
In the United States, cities that committed earlier, longer and more aggressively to social distancing interventions, not only saved lives, but also emerged economically stronger than those that didn’t.
Face masks and hand hygiene were popularised and sometimes enforced in cities.
In San Francisco, a Red Cross-led public education campaign was combined with mandatory mask-wearing outside the home.
This was tightly enforced in some jurisdictions by police officers issuing fines, and at times using weapons.
3. HIV/AIDS (20th century)
The first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the Western world emerged in 1981.
Since then, around 75 million people have become infected with HIV, and about 32 million people have died.
Many readers may remember how baffling and frightening the HIV/AIDs pandemic was in the early days (and still is in many parts of the developing world).
We now understand that people living with HIV infection who are on treatment are far less likely to develop serious complications.
These treatments, known as antiretrovirals stop HIV from replicating. This can lead to an “undetectable viral load” in a person’s blood. Evidence shows that people with an undetectable viral load can’t pass the virus on to others during sex.
Condoms and PrEP (short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” where people take an oral antiretroviral pill once a day), can be used by people who don’t have HIV infection to reduce the risk of acquiring the virus.
Unfortunately, there are currently no proven antivirals available for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19, though research is ongoing.
The HIV pandemic taught us about the value of a well-designed public health campaign, and the importance of contact tracing. Broad testing in appropriate people is fundamental to this, to understand the extent of infection in the community and allow appropriately targeted individual and population-level interventions.
It also demonstrated that words and stigma matter; people need to feel they can test safely and be supported, rather than ostracised. Stigmatising language can fuel misconceptions, discrimination and discourage testing.
4. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) (2002-2003)
The current pandemic is the third coronavirus outbreak in the past two decades.
SARS was finally contained in July, 2003. SARS-CoV-2, however, appears much more easily spread than the original SARS coronavirus.
To some extent SARS was a practice run for COVID-19. Researchers focused on SARS and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, another coronavirus that remains a problem in selected regions), are providing important foundational research for potential vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.
SARS also emphasised the importance of communication in a pandemic, and the need for frank, honest and timely information sharing.
Certainly, SARS was a catalyst for change in China; the government invested in enhanced surveillance systems, that facilitate the real time collection and communication of infectious diseases and syndromes from emergency departments back to a centralised government database.
This was coupled with the International Health Regulations, which requires the reporting of unusual and unexpected outbreaks of disease.
Advances in science, information technology and knowledge gained from SARS, allowed us to quickly isolate, sequence and share SARS-CoV-2 data globally. Likewise, important clinical information was distributed early to the medical community.
Finally, a crucial, but perhaps overlooked lesson from SARS is the need for sustained investment in vaccine and infectious disease treatment research.
Few infectious disease researchers were surprised when another coronavirus pandemic broke out. A globalised world, with overcrowded, well connected people and cities, where humans and animals live in close proximity, provides fertile conditions for infectious diseases.
We must be ever prepared for the emergence of another pandemic, and learn the lessons of history to navigate the next threat.
David Griffin, Infectious Diseases Fellow, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Justin Denholm, Associate Professor, Melbourne Health