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What the 1918 flu pandemic reveals about how pandemics end

In this October 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps personnel wear masks as they hold stretchers next to ambulances in preparation for victims of the influenza epidemic. (Library of Congress via AP)
In this October 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps personnel wear masks as they hold stretchers next to ambulances in preparation for victims of the influenza epidemic. (Library of Congress via AP)

Will this pandemic ever end?

Well, the fact is — all pandemics DO end. But how do we, as a society, decide we’ve reached that point?

There aren’t great templates for this — except one. The end of the 1918 pandemic.

“People were very used to dealing with epidemics. Everyone knew somebody who died of a contagious disease. Many of those people had children who died,” Howard Markel says. “But once the cases fell down to almost nothing, both the doctors and the public agreed it’s time to go back to life.”

A different time, and a different disease. But there’s still much to learn.

“All historical lessons can teach you something. And to me right now, the greatest lesson was that we did survive,” he adds.

Today, On Point: How did the 1918 flu pandemic come to an end?

Guests

Howard Markel, professor and director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. Author of “When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed” and “The Secret of Life.” (@HowardMarkel)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: “Omicron Is the Beginning of the End” — “No matter the severity of the variant, the appetite for shutdowns or other large-scale social interventions simply isn’t there.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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