The influenza pandemic of 1918–20 was the most devastating in human history, killing anywhere between 25 million and 50 million people worldwide. It began in the closing years of World War I and ended up killing more people than the war. The total number is uncertain because many parts of the world didn’t keep adequate records back then.
The current coronavirus pandemic has brought renewed attention to the flu pandemic. One key difference was that while the flu preferentially targeted young, healthy people, COVID-19 seems to be more deadly to older people and those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions.
To combat the flu pandemic, public authorities in 1918 urged mask-wearing and quarantining. Some localities made wearing masks mandatory. Some even threatened fines or jail times for non-mask wearers.
That idea proved as controversial then as it is today. An “anti-mask league” formed in San Francisco, packing 2,000 people into a civic hall for its first meeting. Among its attendees were some public officials who disagreed with the mask-wearing mandate.
As officials today debate whether and how to reopen their schools and economies, the flood of information can seem overwhelming. Some of it seems contradictory. As our knowledge of the virus changes, so do the recommendations of health experts. There’s a lot they still don’t know. (It also doesn’t help when decisions are affected by politics rather than science.)
In this issue, you can read of a workplace consultant’s presentation to members of the American Waterways Operators on strategies to overcome resistance to preventive measures. Attendees acknowledge varying levels of compliance in their operations. The consultant acknowledges all the reasons why people might resist, as they did in 1919. Human beings are naturally independent and do not like to be told what to do. Masks can be uncomfortable. The experts sometimes contradict themselves. What’s right for one section of the country may not be right for another. And of course, people just get tired and fed up.
What we do know for sure is that this is a serious disease that has the potential to kill or to cause lifelong complications among a subset of those infected. It now appears that millions of people can be infected and show no symptoms, while others can have dire consequences for reasons we don’t fully understand yet. Some victims have neurological issues, others have metabolic changes, and organ damage has been found in some. Those complications so far have occurred among a small minority, but surely none would want a vulnerable older family member to have to face these.
If the waterways industry seems to have (so far) had a better record fighting COVID-19 than some shore industries, it is surely because of the unique nature of our industry. Boat crews work in close quarters. Mariners form a strong “work tribe” with shared values. They are proud of being essential workers playing a key role in keeping the economy moving during this crisis. Even before COVID-19 hit, they have had to be safety-conscious all day, every day.
These are all excellent reasons to keep wearing masks, sterilizing surfaces and enacting other protective measures as necessary.