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We've Been Here Before: South Coast Historian Says COVID-19 Pandemic Parallels 1918 Pandemic

A historian says it’s a pandemic which swept the world, killing millions and shutting down everything from businesses to schools.

But, Cynthia Thompson isn’t talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Ventura Historian is talking about the now mostly forgotten 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.  She says from masks to business and school shutdowns, there are a number of amazing parallels between the two pandemics.

Thompson says it was believed to have started at a U.S. military base in the Midwest, and was spread as soldiers were deployed to Europe.

The historian says it hit hard in Ventura.  Thompson says there were no drugs or vaccines, but people did understand that it was spread from person to person.

She says it was really the community, and not the government which stepped up to try to stop the pandemic.  Businesses shut down, schools closed, and most people wore masks and socially distanced.

Government agencies did pass ordinances like mandatory mask wearing.  Just like now, there were people who denied how serious the pandemic is.

But, in 1918 some of the people who defied the law got more than the warning they are getting now.  Thompson says 29 people died from the flu in Ventura, and 30 were arrested for violating health orders.

There’s another parallel between the pandemics.  There was a first wave, and later, a second, bigger one.  It came when the flu mutated in Europe, and soldiers returning from World War I brought it home.

Thompson says it frustrating to see people ignoring the difficult lessons the world learned just over a century ago.  She says time takes away those memories.  The historian says because today’s generation didn’t live through the 1918 pandemic, it’s harder for some people to grasp the threat, or implications.

The 1918 pandemic made an estimated 500 million people sick, and some 50 million died.  The COVID-19 pandemic has infected about 93 million people so far, with just under two million deaths.

In 1918, they didn’t have a vaccine, so frequent hand washing, masks and social distancing were what they had available.  We have vaccine, but most people haven’t received it yet.   So for now, a century later, until we can get vaccinated, we have to rely on the same things they did in 1918, like frequent hand washing, masks, and social distancing.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.