A Tale of Two Pandemics：What a Difference a Century Makes
Ned Temko 内德·特姆科
here's no shortage of items on the world's to-do list as we enter 2021， but one will likely loom largest: the search for common ground to meet a raft of common challenges，at a time when powerful political currents have been pulling us apart.
So will multilateralism and cooperation start staging a comeback against the forces of narrow nationalism？ That won't be easy， and it will be a while before we'll know.
I've been drawing on an expert guide to the pandemic world of a century ago: British science writer Laura Spinney， whose book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World” has kept me company over the self-isolated holiday period.
It's not what you'd call easy reading. But it is an eloquently told， assiduously researched story of the 1918-19 pandemic that also paints a vivid portrait of the world as it then was. And it's hard not to be struck by the differences between that world and our own – and how they might boost the chances of greater cooperation in the months ahead.
The similarities between the two pandemics， such as the impact of common-sense responses （heightened hygiene and social distancing， quarantines and isolation， for example）， are intriguing. Still， it's the differences that could carry the more important message for our post-pandemic future.
Even in the early 1900s， the world was interconnected， and the flu spread around the globe within a few months. Yet our world is far more immediately connected. People are more aware， often in real time， of the pandemic's effects worldwide – and of how well their governments and others are doing to contain it.
In 1918， Ms. Spinney points out， “Telephones were rare. Long-distance communication was mainly by telegraph， or，in parts of China， carrier pigeon.” And，she might have added， there was no internet. No smartphones. No Twitter， Facebook， or YouTube.
In the past few days， for instance， people worldwide have been following detailed reports of the appearance in dozens of countries of COVID-19's latest “British”mutation – a new reminder of the truly borderless nature of the pandemic.
Ms. Spinney records a range of political aftereffects from the pandemic a century ago. Yet many of them came only years later. In today's world， our immediate access to information and the breadth and speed of communication put pressure on governments and other institutions to respond much more quickly.
When the Spanish flu began spreading， Ms. Spinney points out， “Your best chance of survival was to be utterly selfish. Assuming you had a place you could call home， the optimal strategy was to stay there … not answer the door … jealously guard your hoard of food and water， and ignore all pleas for help.
“In general， however， people did not do this. They reached out to each other.”
That instinct was sometimes fatal on an individual level in 1919. In 2021， on a global level， it could prove to be our saving grace.