Despite a century's progress in science, 2020 is looking a lot like 1918.
In the years between two lethal pandemics, one the misnamed Spanish flu, the other COVID-19, the world learned about viruses, cured various diseases, made effective vaccines, developed instant communications and created elaborate public-health networks.
Yet here we are again, face-masked to the max. And still unable to crush an insidious yet avoidable infectious disease before hundreds of thousands die from it.
Here are some photos from over a century ago:
As in 1918, people are again hearing hollow assurances at odds with the reality of hospitals and morgues filling up and bank accounts draining. The ancient common sense of quarantining is back. So is quackery: Rub raw onions on your chest, they said in 1918. How about disinfectant in your veins now? mused President Donald Trump, drawing gasps instead of laughs over what he weakly tried to pass off as a joke.
In 1918, no one had a vaccine, treatment or cure for the great flu pandemic as it ravaged the world and killed more than 50 million people. No one has any of that for the coronavirus, either.
Modern science quickly identified today's new coronavirus, mapped its genetic code and developed a diagnostic test, tapping knowledge no one had in 1918. That has given people more of a fighting chance to stay out of harm's way, at least in countries that deployed tests quickly, which the U.S. didn't.
But the ways to avoid getting sick and what to do when sick are little changed.
The suspected ground zero of the Spanish flu ranges from Kansas to China. But it was clear to U.S. officials even in 1918 that it didn't start in Spain.
The pandemic took on Spain's name only because its free press ambitiously reported the devastation in the disease's early 1918 wave while government officials and a complicit press in countries at war — the U.S. among them — played it down in a time of jingoism, censorship and denial.
Like COVID-19, the 1918 pandemic came from a respiratory virus that jumped from animals to people, was transmitted the same way, and had similar pathology. Social distancing, hand-washing and masks were leading control measures then and now, says John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza.”
Medical advice from then also resonates today: "If you get it, stay at home, rest in bed, keep warm, drink hot drinks and stay quiet until the symptoms are past," said Dr. John Dill Robertson, Chicago health commissioner in 1918. "Then continue to be careful, for the greatest danger is from pneumonia or some kindred disease after the influenza is gone."
But there were also marked differences between the viruses of 1918 and 2020. The Spanish flu was particularly dangerous to healthy people aged 20 to 40 — the prime generation of military service — paradoxically because of their vibrant immune systems.
When such people got infected, their antibodies went after the virus like soldiers spilling from the trenches of Europe's killing fields.
"The immune system was throwing every weapon it had at the virus," Barry said. "The battlefield was the lung. The lung was being destroyed in that battle."
Young soldiers and sailors massed at military camps in the U.S., sailed for Europe on ships stuffed to the gunwales with humanity, fought side by side in the trenches and came home in victory to adoring crowds. The toll was enormous, on them and the people they infected.
An estimated 675,000 Americans died in the pandemic, which is thought to have infected one-third of the global population.
— CALVIN WOODWARD with Colleen Long and Lauran Neergaard