As the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelms health care systems and disrupts industries worldwide, daily life may feel like uncharted territory.
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 today’s government officials are implementing.
And the work of an undergraduate history alumnus turned medical student is helping engage and educate the public.
“Social distancing, canceled events—it all looked similar,” Tarun Jella (CWR ’17), now a first-year student at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine and an undergraduate alumnus, explained of the Spanish flu.
As a history major, 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.
This research influenced Jella’s mindset toward the medical field today, and has proven useful in informing 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 points to similarities in media coverage as an example, noting outlets in both crises held a clear 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.”
The tone of news coverage at the time shifted 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. Communicating clear, consistent, measured and reliable information to the public was essential.”
With this in mind, Jella urges today’s public to pay close attention to the sources of the information they read, remembering media outlets are incentivized to attract viewers and keep people engaged.
“Media coverage can be effective, but I would point to resources from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and National Institute of Health, above all,” he said. “Those organizations have a vested interest in disseminating reliable information.”
Jella also said sustained social distancing and public health measures will continue to be crucial in today’s pandemic. In 1918, cities where the transition back to pre-pandemic life took place too quickly experienced a distinct second wave of confirmed cases and mortalities.
“A historical mindset is essential when contextualizing the public health problems we face today,” said Jella, who, in addition to sharing his insights, has been volunteering with fellow medical students to field phone calls at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
His mindset is one many history majors share: Nearly a quarter of the department’s majors at any given time are pre-med students.
“Studying history teaches critical patterns of thought, which are invaluable to physicians,” said Kenneth Ledford, associate professor and chair of Case Western Reserve’s Department of History. “The great virtue of history is that it provides a context in which to begin to analyze any problem you encounter.”
Though Jella has yet to decide upon a medical specialization, his ultimate goal is to improve the capacity of health systems worldwide, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries.
“My history background will be an essential element of my career in health,” he said. “Understanding why our systems look the way they do is the first step toward positive change.”