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Charlotte Talks: This Is Not Our First Pandemic


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

In 1918, the Spanish flu ravaged the globe. One hundred years later, we consider the striking parallels and lessons to be learned in the wake of COVID-19.

A stay-at-home order is in place. Medical equipment is hard to find. There’s an illness causing flu-like symptoms, and it spreads easily. The year is 1918.

Today’s coronavirus is not the first time North Carolina has experienced a pandemic. Just over 100 years ago the so-called Spanish flu ravaged the globe, killing roughly 13,000 in North Carolina, 675,000 in the United States and 50 million worldwide.

Today we consider the surprising parallels of the two pandemics, 100 years apart.

Charlotte’s population was 1/20th of what it is today, and technology has since evolved in unimaginable ways. But the similarities are striking: Movie theaters are closed but grocery stores remain open, children are home from school and boredom is creeping in. Some are anxious to reopen the economy, while health officials are cautious. In perhaps a harbinger of things to come, in 1919 some businesses sued the local board of health for keeping them from making a profit.

What do we have to learn from the 1918 influenza? How might it inform our response to COVID-19?

In 2018, Dr. Lauren Austin cautioned at the end of her dissertation: “We are at once both wholly unprepared and ideally situated for another influenza outbreak.”


Dr. Lauren Austin, author of “Afraid to Breathe: Understanding North Carolina’s Experience of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic at the State, Local, and Individual Levels

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Jesse Steinmetz is Producer of Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Before joining WFAE in 2019, he was an intern at WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut and hosted a show at Eastern Connecticut State University.