In a pandemic that stretched on for nearly 30 months, the Spanish flu was unprecedented for its high mortality rate and its quiet spread. The pandemic progressed in waves, peaking and falling at different times and in different places; by the time it was done, it had killed more than 50 million individuals across the still largely unconnected world of that era.
COVID-19 has now completed more than six months in most countries, in a world that is many times more connected. But just as the first wave of the Spanish flu led to a flurry of fatigue, which in turn prompted a disdain for physical distancing and medically sound advice, we are faced with people defying masking and distancing protocols.
In many ways, we have done better than the administrators of 1918, where issuing mask-wearing sermons were hardly adhered to and international communication on the disease had inexplicably turned silent after the first wave. The governments of the day, after an initial flurry of publicising safety measures took to cautionary advisories when the much more deadly second wave hit the world. Initial shoutouts soon turned to precautionary messaging which in turn evolved into neglect and often disdain for the disease. The apparent casualness of managing a rampaging pandemic as bodies started piling up was intricately linked to the messaging shared with the larger population.
We are standing in a similar quagmire today. From an inordinately loud messaging that attached COVID-19 to stigma and set the tone for the coming months, the messaging was simple and unidirectional in the initial weeks. Just as the Spanish flu, most governments went ahead with a war-like approach with the onus squarely upon winning over the enemy. As realisation crept in that it is not a war with definite winners or losers, the narrative slowly shifted towards managing the disease. Now, seven months into the pandemic, silence appears to have become the official communication strategy of most governments. Silence coupled with a lack of standing up to rumours that in the age of social media has magnified several times over when compared to the isolated communities of 1918.
The India of today sits at the cusp of losing control over the communication war on COVID-19. As COVID-19 coverage loses credibility in media and communities panic over lost livelihood opportunities, normal citizens have nowhere to turn too. The unlock process accentuated the feeling that things are coming back to normal and fatigue over following rules have met with a strong resistance. Memories of the initial weeks of strong-arm tactics and the loss of credibility of civic authorities have brought he entire nation to a catch 22 situation where corona is feared and yet fatalism predominates the discourse. The yet seemingly insurmountable challenge that the virus has posed before science and the crippling inability to find a cure is also a factor accounting greatly for the generation of fear among the masses. The two strange bedfellows fear and fatality have an ally in the form of increased miscommunication of the vitality of the pandemic. Too many people in positions of influence have tried to normalise the disease which has the potential of catching fire and spreading deep into the crevices of a vulnerable society.
We have inadvertently pushed for a communication strategy that put too much credibility into a lockdown while not pushing enough for the relatively boring strategy of ‘wearing masks’ or ‘keeping a distance’. Now, as the country unlocked amidst abounding cases, the communication flounders as it seeks to tear itself away from the lock-unlock worldview. Meanwhile, the society is tearing at its seams as cases increase and the number of sick stay away from productive work. We are seeing the beginnings of a societal transformation with deflated demand gaining strength in spite of frequent calls of an economic revival.
We have an opportunity to learn from the Spanish flu of 1918 and enough to fear from it. For all the calls of COVID-19 being relatively harmless, the Spanish Flu had the wherewithal to incubate within 3-4 days and could spread fast through communities extinguishing rapidly in the process. COVID-19 on the other hand, as we know now, moves at a languid pace and in the fourteen or so days, it takes to incubate within a body, the diseases has the potential of infecting a much larger population than was fathomable during the worst months of the Spanish flu. Governments did not take the Spanish Flu seriously and governments of the day have taken to a cycle of reassurance and silence to counter COVID-19 of today. For naysayers, several people in the initial days of the Spanish flu had taken to terming the pandemic as a seasonal flu, eerily akin to the common discourse of the past few weeks. In between both the pandemics lies the truth that the society wants to hear.
Uncomfortably, it appears that the wisdom of quarantining, wearing masks and distancing gained from managing ancient diseases holds true today as well. The Italian writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), author of The Decameron, which recounts the tales of a group of ten individuals trying to escape the plague by seclusion, describes in his introduction the main ways in which people reacted to the Black Death:
“There were some people who thought that living moderately and avoiding any excess might help a great deal in resisting this disease, and so they gathered in small groups and lived entirely apart from everyone else. They shut themselves up in those houses where there were no sick people.”
Notwithstanding the potential mortality rate of the coronavirus or its needless comparisons to road accidents, the Ebola virus, deaths due to cancer and AIDS, the communication strategy must stand steadfast to its commitment on informing the society of the need to take basic precautions. Neither is this pandemic ordinary nor is it a rumour, it is real and deserves not the fear but the respect due to its capabilities. Any communication, currently or in the forthcoming second or third wave will need to stand true to its moral prerogative and convey the truth about the disease, unblemished and removed of greasepaint. And lest we forget, the second wave of the Spanish flu spread in the fall of 1918.