“History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes” – Mark Twain.

Recently I stumbled upon Influenza Archive – a beautifully kept database of old newspaper clippings, city wide summaries, and a general encyclopedia covering the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. For the past few months it’s become quite popular to compare coronavirus to the century old pandemic, but what actually did happen and what is a sign to come? 

Or put another way – what have we forgotten in the last 100 years?

There are some fun high level revisionist histories – for example, the 1918 Spanish Flu was called that not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was a neutral country during WWI and thus published true death rates of the epidemic making it seem the worst hit (vs. other countries that had wartime censorship to avoid looking “weak” at the end of the war). This is despite evidence that the actual origin of the flu was most likely in military camps in midwest US! 

But given the easy access to these newspaper clippings, here are some fun ones that I’ve found on topics that are dominating the zeitgeist today. Unsurprisingly it turns out that human behavior tends to react the same.

Please excuse any potential bias and cherry picking in advance 🙂 

On Pressure to Reopen Businesses

On Church Closings & Protests 

On Masks 

Masks were as dominant of a topic back then as it is now – from mandatory (and hated) requirements of wearing them, to lacking supplies entirely. In SF there were actually financial penalties for being caught without wearing a mask, and they were so badly hated that there was a celebration when they were no longer required. Maybe a sign of what is to come? 

So that was some taste of the past and present, but what hints can we get about the future? The reopening of economy / going back to normal day life might be one – 

If anything, I’m hopeful that our reopening may be a bit different. For starters, lots of states were never really closed and/or have phased their rollout instead of one big jubilant and grand reopening (compared to other global countries and cities where the lockdown was done quite literally). Secondly, there seems to be enough public pressure for larger companies to take precautions (from plexiglass protections to limited seating). 

Lastly, while the pandemic seems to be all encompassing now, there will be a day when “this too shall pass”. And though it may be hard to believe, I think we’ll get back to a point where things will be “surprisingly normal” again. And soon, we may see a clipping like this –

Let’s just hope we don’t forget the lessons for the next time.



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