What We Can Learn from the 1918 Pandemic

TASA ID: 1056

The social impact of the Spanish Flu and Covid-19 are eerily similar. There are many things we can learn from the 1918 Pandemic’s impact on society, the economy and employee behaviors. Similar to Covid-19, businesses and schools were forced to close, social distancing was the new norm, economies took a terrible blow and production was slowed. One of the most important lessons we have learned from the Spanish Flu is that we cannot ease our guard too quickly. In the summer of 1918, we thought we had conquered the pandemic; however, it lasted through the spring of 1919 because we underestimated its resistance.

What can we expect at the conclusion of the Covid-19 Pandemic?: There is no doubt that Covid-19 will be known as “the defining event of 2020.” The job growth of 22 million jobs, that we experienced in the US, over the past decade, has been lost due to Covid-19’s impact on businesses. Unemployment, during the first five weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, has hit a staggering 22 million claims filed. If history repeats itself, the economy will come back strong, as was the case during the Roaring 20’s, when people felt liberated from isolation and did not shy away from spending. As far as the societal and employment impact, this becomes a bit more complicated. Humankind is social by nature. Therefore, social distancing will be the short-term norm. However, as was the case 100 years ago, we have short memories when it comes to disasters or pandemics. Therefore, shopping malls, movie theaters, large gatherings at bars, restaurants, sporting events, and the travel industry will take a short-term financial hit but will recover in time. 

Societal Impact: There will be some long-lasting changes in societal norms. Open air parks will become a safe place to relax and enjoy the weather, rather then beaches and community pools. Shaking hands and hugging will become taboo out of fear. However, this too will be short lived. The more serious concerns are the impact of being unemployed, isolated from each other, the loneliness, despair, fear, anxiety, grief over the loss of loved ones, etc. These are all very real issues that most of our society is feeling. When we hear about PTSD, we generally relate it to veterans of war. However, PTSD can also be the result of any kind of tragedy, including a Pandemic, such as Covid-19. PTSD will certainly be an issue that many Americans will be dealing with in the aftermath of this Pandemic. The severity of the PTSD is going to vary, based on the individual. Areas for concern with this terrible disease are an increase in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, depression, homelessness, etc. Other societal issues that resemble what certain people and communities experienced during and after the 1918 Pandemic are discrimination, harassment, hatred, and violence against Asians. This is similar to what people of certain European and Mexican descents experienced 100 years ago.

The Global handling of the Covid-19 outbreak has been confronted differently by each country. Some countries were more aggressive in dealing with this silent enemy, some countries took a wait and see approach, others worked collaboratively with bordering countries. The result of these varying approaches has led to the possibility of a rise in Nationalism, as each country will inevitably take a look back and say, “we did it better and our way was correct.” Nationalism can have good and bad effects. Loyalty to one’s country is generally accepted as a good thing. However, it can also lead to societal competitiveness, which can result in the mindset that a country’s gains come at the expense of another nation’s expense and vice versa. We need to work together to get our borders reopened and our economy back on track. We cannot afford to begin competing against each other. This is not a Pandemic that is isolated to one location. Every country is in this fight together. One country’s problem will have a ripple effect on other surrounding countries. One state’s problem will have a ripple effect on surrounding states. Therefore, it is critical for all political and economic leaders to become more supportive and cooperative of our governments.

The most important takeaway from the 1918 Pandemic is that we cannot rush getting the country reopened. When we ignored the Social Distancing orders in the Summer of 1918, the Spanish Flu spiked again in the Fall of 1918. This spike lasted through the Spring of 1919, killing more people than all of World War I.

Employee Impact: It is my belief that employee behavior will change substantially. Employees are going to appreciate the employer that is transparent and consistent in their message, trust their employees and allow their employees to have a voice in reshaping the business. As I mentioned earlier, due to “layoffs” and “new employee expectations” there is going to be a large talent pool available to the companies that recognize and demonstrate the flexibility to adjust to the changing face of the corporate world and embrace employee loyalty. Employers that demonstrate they value their employees will “Win the Talent and Retention War.” 

As we come out of this Pandemic, we need to recognize that flexibility and proactivity are critical in reinventing our organizations. The companies that are flexible and proactive will certainly be the leaders in their industry. One of the most critical steps in this reinvention will be the ability to be proactive in recruiting by capitalizing on the newly created talent pool. We must continue to recognize that “our most valuable assets are our people.” Recruiting and retaining the best of the best will make you the “best of the best!”

Business Impact: Global production has slowed, businesses have been forced to lay-off skilled workers, mom and pop businesses have been shuttered, and healthcare has been stretched beyond anything they have ever experienced. I can go on and on about the different business implications that we are facing, during and post the Covid-19 Pandemic. The smart and progressive business leaders today are looking ahead at how they can “reinvent their organizations.” Moving forward, businesses are probably going to transform the way they operate. Companies that are not focused on this new reality will likely lose their competitive advantage. There are several things that we have learned over the past five weeks. Mass layoffs of workers with critical skills have created a large pool of highly skilled individuals. The “new norm” includes working remotely, for a large part of the workforce, including virtual meetings. Virtual happy hours have become routine and a way to stay connected. Social Distancing has forced us to move to a remote workforce and technology has enabled us to continue to effectively conduct business. It has been reported by many organizations, that having certain employees and management working remotely has not had any negative impact on productivity. Some employees have reported that they feel able to better manage family/work balance. There are other workers that have reported working remotely has been incredibly stressful and difficult. Humans are social and if you are a single individual that is being forced into isolation, including working remotely, it can be uncomfortable and stressful. However, most workers have reported that they feel more productive and welcome the experience. This is one major way for leaders to reshape their organization, moving forward. Companies need to realize that offering the ability to work remotely, whether it is one day or several days per week, becomes a huge “recruiting and retention tool.” 

We need to recognize and adjust our thinking to the many changes occurring daily to the status quo. For example, staggering hours of operation and/or staggering employee schedules will be a short-term change that may prove so successful that it becomes permanent. Distance Learning may become a new approach to education, at least at the college level. In fact, some colleges and universities have already decided to conduct virtual courses for the Fall 2020 Semester. Telemedicine will be the new means of treating patients with certain conditions, including routine check-ups. Consumer behaviors are shifting to predominately online shopping with delivery and pick-up options. Shopping for the best deals will take priority over brand loyalty. 

Economic Impact: In addition to this health crisis, we are facing an economic crisis that is impacting every sector of the global economy. We are confronted with a period of mass unemployment that is staggering. The only other time in history unemployment was this high was during the height of the Great Depression in 1933. This is going to lead to deep financial and psychological scars for the families trapped within it. It is especially overwhelming to the percentage of Americans that fall under the poverty threshold. Unfortunately, African Americans and Latinos, who make up over 38% of the US population, are under the poverty level. Covid-19 is devastating to minority and low- income communities at a scale that is completely out of proportion to their overall population.

The idea of Universal Basic Income, which was recently a political platform of Presidential Candidate Andrew Young, is again a topic of discussion to assist low income individuals. Universal Basic Income is a government guarantee that each citizen would receive a minimum income. It has been an on and off topic dating back to President Lyndon Johnson. In fact, there are many states and countries that have put experimental Guaranteed Income Programs in place. There is no question; something must be done to help our low income and uninsured individuals. If not, we will be deepening the divide between this group and our middle and upper-income groups.

In summary, the world has grown in many ways over the past 100 years. We have made advancements in technology, science and medicine, as well as business infrastructure. However, there are so many similarities of the impacts of the 1918 and 2020 Pandemics. We need to recognize and learn from the effects of the 1918 Spanish Flu and how society was shaped post Pandemic. We must reimagine what society will look like when Covid-19 is under control and learn from how we confronted this silent enemy.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author (TASA Id#: 1056). Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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