Learning from history

Alumnus’s research into a 1918 pandemic helps shape public understanding today

This article first appeared in a summer publication related to the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More articles will appear in The Daily and on the university and school social media accounts in upcoming weeks; visit case.edu/together to see more.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began overwhelming health care systems and disrupting industries worldwide, daily life suddenly felt like uncharted territory. 

News outlets provided the framework for this sensation: In a matter of weeks, coverage in the United States shifted from occasional features on the virus abroad to an onslaught of stories reporting “unprecedented” phenomena.

But the truth is, we’ve been here before. More than a century ago, the Spanish flu of 1918 worked its way across the globe, prompting many of the same public health measures government officials have implemented in 2020. 

And, amid today’s pandemic, the work of an undergraduate history alumnus turned medical student has helped engage and educate the public.

“Social distancing, canceled events—it all looked similar,” explained Tarun Jella (CWR ’17), a rising second-year student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. 

As an undergraduate history major at Case Western Reserve, Jella, who also holds a Master of Public Health degree from Dartmouth College, wrote his senior capstone project on the Spanish flu. Specifically, he focused on how the virus impacted the trajectory of public health and medicine in the midst of World War I. 

His research has helped inform media coverage—and, in turn, public understanding—of the coronavirus.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving, its parallels with the Spanish flu are already abundant. Jella pointed to the similarities in media coverage as an example, noting outlets in both crises held a bias toward sensationalism. 

“One of the biggest pressures on the press in 1918 was to report positive stories that kept morale high for American soldiers,” he said. “Outlets initially reported only German soldiers were succumbing to the Spanish flu, when in reality it hit American soldiers equally.”

Then, the tone of news coverage changed dramatically as the flu took hold of East Coast cities, shaking Americans of their misconceptions that the virus was solely a problem overseas or a simple three-day cold. 

Trends in containment of the virus stand as another clear parallel. 

“The case numbers really tell the story,” said Jella, pointing to cities like St. Louis and even Cleveland that were most successful in flattening the curve. “Cities that were too focused on lessening the economic impact, like Philadelphia, ultimately faced incredible waves of cases that their health systems couldn’t handle.” 

Jella has urged today’s public to learn from our past and pay close attention to the sources of the information they read, remembering media outlets are incentivized to attract viewers and keep people engaged. 

“A historical mindset is essential when contextualizing the public health problems we face today,” said Jella, who, in addition to sharing his insights, has volunteered with fellow medical students to field phone calls at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

“Understanding why our systems look the way they do is the first step toward positive change.”  

—Michelle Kolk


History of pandemics

1918-19 Spanish Flu epidemic, Influenza A (H1N1)

  • 50 million deaths globally
  • 675,000 deaths in the U.S.

1928 “Antibiotics era”: Scientist Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin, the first antibiotic.

1957-58 Asian Flu, Influenza A (H2N2)

  • 1.1 million estimated deaths globally
  • 116,000 deaths in the U.S.

1968-69 Hong Kong Flu, Influenza A (H3N2)

  • 1 million estimated deaths globally
  • 100,000 deaths in the U.S. (still circulates as a seasonal flu)

1981-present Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV/AIDS)

  • 32 million deaths globally
  • 700,000 deaths in the U.S. as of 2018

2009-10 Swine Flu, Novel Influenza A (H1N1)

  • 151,700-575,400 estimated deaths globally
  • 12,469 deaths in the U.S.

2019-present Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

  • 508,051 estimated deaths globally
  • 126,573 projected deaths in the U.S.