Lockdowns, mask mandates, defiance from churches, anti-mask protests, hotels requisitioned for the poor, a devastating winter surge.
California's coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has been, in many ways, eerily similar to the influenza pandemic of 1918.
As the state's Covid-19 cases and deaths plummet, many journalists and academics have been predicting that the similarities will persist in the post-pandemic period, with a return of the exuberance that characterized the Roaring Twenties.
The waning of the 1918 pandemic coincided with the end of World War I, and Californians were determined to make up for lost time. Los Angeles’s population grew by more than 200% in the 1920s to more than 1.2 million people. The city’s Mexican population tripled. The film industry exploded.
San Francisco, one of the American cities hardest hit by the flu, experienced a cultural resurgence with several new theaters and a proliferation of speakeasies in defiance of Prohibition. It was a period, according to a KRON documentary on San Francisco in the 1920s, “when hemlines got higher, morals got lower, and the party never stopped.”
A year after the coronavirus roared into California, signs are now mounting of a return of ordinary pleasures, like dinner parties and hugs for grandma. A recent outlook by economists at UCLA predicted that 2021 would be one of the strongest years of growth in 60 years. “With a vaccine and the release of pent-up demand, the next few years will be roaring,” wrote Leo Feler, a senior economist with the forecast.
The California Sun spoke to two experts, Dr. Shira Shafir, an associate professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School, and Pieter M. O’Leary, author of “The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Los Angeles” in Southern California Quarterly, for their insights. Our conversation, below, has been edited for clarity and brevity.
California Sun: Is there a pattern for what happens after a pandemic?
Shafir: We can go all the way back to the Black Death of the 14th century and we can see there is a pattern of those who survive. There is a tremendous sense of, “I’ve made it through.” In the Middle Ages, it was very much about debauchery. In the United States, post-influenza pandemic, it was about the Roaring Twenties. I think we're even now starting to see little snippets of what things may be. You see people starting to travel, posting on social media, that they're having these indoor parties, that they're ready to get back to life as normal. So I think we already have small hints that once people are vaccinated, they feel that they themselves are protected, that they are ready for their own Roaring Twenties.
Sun: How long do you think this post-pandemic celebration will last?
O’Leary: I think that maybe it will be two years of this kind of buoyancy and happiness, maybe not even that long. But I think some of those things that pre-existed the pandemic are going to come back and may be exacerbated by that. There's also this growing sense of the disparities, the racial disparities and the impacts on health. I think there's a lot that's going to be done to try and address that. I also think there's going to be a lot to celebrate science. And I hope that occurs, just to realize that science is really what saved us.
Sun: What were the key drivers in getting back to normal in San Francisco and Los Angeles after the 1918 flu pandemic?
Shafir: It's really important to note that in 1918, when there was no vaccine, they were able to control the pandemic with the other measures that we have been putting forward. So mask, wearing, social distancing, hand hygiene, etiquette, all of those things together, or as we sometimes call the Swiss cheese model of respiratory virus defense. All of those things together, helped them control the pandemic. So will it be more efficient now? Absolutely. But is a vaccine the only tool or the only path forward? No, it's not.
Sun: What do you think people should understand at this moment in the pandemic?
O’Leary: Covid and the Spanish flu were natural things. Disease outbreaks occur and we as human beings are not separate and apart from nature. We can control them a little better now than we could in 1918 with vaccinations, more effective masking, and improvements in medicine, but we're still part of nature and anybody who thinks that we're not or that we've conquered nature is wrong. And all they have to do is go back and look at what's happened in the last year.
Shafir: The biggest thing I hope people will understand is that the reason we are now in a good place is because of the work that we have all been doing. Transmission decreases because of a combination of things: No. 1, because of vaccination; No. 2 because of mask wearing; No. 3, social distancing, and No. 4, sort of all the rest. So we absolutely should be optimistic. Now is the time for us to begin looking to the future and thinking about what it will be like when we are all vaccinated.
But it's also the time to remember, we're not all vaccinated. And we do still have massive equity issues, particularly in the county of Los Angeles, where we see individuals who are white are way more likely to have been vaccinated than individuals who are Black or Latinx. So we need to be and we should be and we deserve to be able to be optimistic, but that needs to be balanced with continuing to act communally.
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