So we have reached the end of a year that has been unlike any we have lived through before, and we can safely say that on behalf of everyone whose age doesn't run into three figures. For a variety of reasons, the pandemic induced by COVID-19 in today's more interconnected world has stood out as a daunting prospect. It struck in an era where our species was starting to grow almost too comfortable in its own skin, smug in our mastery over all the known elements. As things stand, with the first vaccines starting to roll out now in some of the Western countries where the virus struck most viciously, much of the world is looking forward to an infinitely better time in 2021.
With no vaccine to look forward to, control efforts worldwide in 1918-20 were limited to the non-pharmaceutical interventions we all relearned this year, such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limited public gatherings. There was nothing like the kind of media that is ubiquitous today to get the message out on the importance of these measures. Today we can find out which type of mask would be best suited to which type of environment, and probably have it delivered to our address just by going on the internet.
Back in the early decades of the 20th century, just coming off the back of the First World War, no form of lockdown would have been sustainable. Working from home was simply not an option 100 years ago. So as people stayed home sick with the virus, economies suffered no end. Humanity's progress in the intervening period between the two pandemics has undoubtedly equipped us in various ways to cope far more assuredly, to choose wisely and act sensibly. It has allowed us to track the virus and how it evolves almost in real time, whereas so much that we know today about the Spanish flu was learnt or discovered 'after the fact'.
To be sure, the expansion of platforms through which media is distributed these days has come with the enhanced possibility of being disinformed. But during the Spanish flu pandemic, it is questionable whether we would have been informed at all. It is notably not very well-known that India under British Rule, including the lands that comprise today's Bangladesh on one flank and Pakistan on another, was by far the worst-hit country in the world by the end of 1918 itself. By the time it was all over, the Spanish flu had claimed the lives of an estimated 12-18 million Indians - including our very own ancestors here in Bangladesh.
This time it looks like we may escape the clutches of the virus with a fraction of the loss in lives, and associated suffering. We can only hope that we use that fact not to reinforce any smugness or hubris, but to appreciate anew what we have in this world. Happy New Year!
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