Before the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, the only place you’d hear about such things in Greater Victoria was in Mitch Hammond’s class.
The University of Victoria professor is a historian who focuses on pandemics and has taught about them for 20 years. This year he even published a textbook, Epidemics in the Modern World. It has 11 chapters, each one dedicated to a pandemic.
For example, Chapter 2, the bubonic plague, opens with a story of Mongol raiders catapulting their infected dead over the walls into Genoa in 1345.
Then there’s Chapter 8, the Spanish flu. It’s known commonly as the virus that came home from the First World War and killed upwards of 50 million people globally.
But, do you know how the Spanish flu got its name?
As Hammond notes, there was a lot of controversy recently about Trump calling the COVID-19 virus the China virus.
“During the First World War, as far as the allies were concerned the war was ending, there was a foreseeable ending,” Hammond said. “The allied governments downplayed the influenza outbreak as they wanted to bring their troops home.”
As a neutral country during the First World War, Spain openly reported on the flu.
“It was acknowledged as a common threat to humanity, and to the war effort,” Hammond said. “It was [eventually] met with solidarity, but [early on] it was more common to acknowledge that it wasn’t a serious crisis at all.”
What’s most important is to realize that pandemics never end with a clean break.
“It’s always messy,” Hammond said. “It’s a kaleidoscope, every couple weeks the historic analogies that seem relevant change.”
Hammond’s teachings follow other plagues through modern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and their impact on the relationship of religion and medicine, the evolution of public health, and our understanding of the communal disease. His text will be translated into Chinese.
Despite his expertise, Hammond said it’s still delicate to talk about the fact the 1918 flu, which lasted for years, had a wider scope globally than what we’ve experienced so far with COVID-19.
“It’s delicate because are we looking at the death toll for a benchmark,” Hammond said. “This is going to be important. As we move forward this pandemic will not have a tidy conclusion, there will not be a ‘boy that was messy,’ and we all go back to work.
“What’s remarkable, compared to previous pandemics, is that we’re educating a sizable part of the Western world on a statistical concept. Before 2020, ‘flattening the curve’ was a concept that originates with expert epidemiologists. Now it’s household.”