coronavirus pandemic

A Historical Perspective: How Covid-19 Compares to Other Epidemics

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Fights over masks. Opposition to vaccines.

You might be thinking we’re talking about life during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it turns out this is not the first time these issues have been hotly debated.

So what have we learned about previous pandemics especially about how they end?

Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus at Yale, has studied epidemic diseases for decades and wrote the book “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.”

“I had a rather somber view that we'd had many dress rehearsals and that we were likely to have another pandemic,” said Snowden.

This pandemic is a little more personal for him.

“I guess to enhance my street credibility I also contracted Covid-19 though I'm very lucky to say that I'm a mild case,” said Snowden.

See an extended version of the interview below.

Frank Snowden – a professor emeritus at Yale – has studied epidemic diseases for decades and wrote the book “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.” He sat down with NBC Connecticut's Matt Austin to talk about how Covid-19 compares to other epidemics.

Debates have raged over how to fight pandemics throughout history including during the 1918 flu.

There have been anti-vaccination efforts.

“Posters went up showing human beings are sprouting horns or tails and hooves,” Snowden said, explaining opposition to the smallpox vaccine at the time it was invented.

And there has been pushback over public health measures.

“Business interests didn't like lockdowns and they set up an anti-masking league,” said Snowden.

This pandemic has some big differences from others, including how Covid-19 has changed so much about our world.

In fact, Snowden said, the Spanish flu, which killed as many as 50 million people or even more, is sometimes referred to as the forgotten pandemic.

“Partly because it was experienced contemporaneously with World War I and people were focused on that,” said Snowden.

Despite the staggering death count the flu caused, Snowden said it did little to influence things like art, culture or public policy in the long term.

Some previous pandemics ended after the virus was eradicated, though others continued on. Snowden noted that in history, only smallpox and polio have come close to being eradicated by human behavior.

And despite our advances in science, it’s been hard to keep up with Covid-19 and its mutations.

“What it looks like is that this disease is going to be with us as an endemic disease for the foreseeable future,” said Snowden.

Snowden believes the virus’ greater impact on people and society will be felt for a while, including with mental health.

And the lessons from the past that seem hard to learn is to fight a pandemic requires investments in public health and a unified response especially now with vaccines.

“We're all in the same boat in this pandemic that no country is safe until the whole world is,” said Snowden.

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