What the 1918 Flu Pandemic and the Ebola Crisis Can Teach Us About Modern Flu Response

A Southern Methodist University medical anthropologist made a call for deeper understanding of and better communication on health issues like the flu during a lecture Thursday evening at SMU. Carolyn Smith-Morris took on the topic of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people—as many as some Black Plague casualty counts, which range from 50 million to 200 million. Her thoughts, delivered in the Gene and Jerry Jones Great Hall at SMU’s Meadows Museum, were part of the ongoing Godbey Anniversary Lecture Series.

Smith-Morris discussed the ways that an epidemic unfolds, beginning with the brief but critical “crisis phase.” During this phase, society sorts out whether it’ll erupt, threatening “both our ability to treat the sick and the ability to carry out the normal functions of society.” The 1918 flu, otherwise known as the Spanish flu, in many places brought society to a halt, requiring widespread volunteerism.

Smith-Morris said she wondered how our response would differ today, particularly within the context of a society that, as she put it, is “addicted to 24-hour, entertainment style news and online optimization for sales and hits.” Fear and stereotyping thrive in this setting, yet a call-to-arms toward a public health crisis could be a different story.

For a case study, Smith-Morris pointed toward the recent Ebola crisis. In the aftermath of Dallas playing home to the country’s first diagnosis, she set out with a team of students to canvas two neighborhoods for their opinions. One was refugee-heavy Vickery Meadows, where the team heard responses of genuine fear and concern. In the M Streets, respondents didn’t exhibit fear and instead created their own narratives about it. Smith-Morris attributed that in part to the portrayal of the person who contracted the disease, who was a refugee visiting Vickery Meadows.

She said deeper engagement with topics of health within our social and communication networks could lead to better understanding. That could mean, in some cases, less unwarranted fear. In other cases, such as yearly flu vaccines, it might mean less apathy.

“This is not a call to compassion or forgiveness, although I’m happy there are those who will make that call,” Smith-Morris concluded. “Mine is about learning from history: The Spanish flu, but also the Ebola epidemic, in which the way we understand and invest deeply in local networks will make a difference between life and death.”

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