Posted on April 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first major disease outbreak the world has seen over the past couple of centuries, but the way it is perceived and its repercussions could differ drastically from those of the past – largely due to the constant influx of information about the virus and the way it dominates the daily news cycle.

According to Dr. Richard O’Kennedy, Qatar Foundation Vice President of Research, Development, and Innovation, the information age we now live in is responsible for the starkest contrast between present-day discussion around the coronavirus and public awareness surrounding history’s greatest previous crises, such as Spanish flu. “The biggest difference between the perception of coronavirus and the perception of past pandemics is the availability of information through social and other media,” said Dr. O’Kennedy, who is an expert on immunology.  “During the great outbreak of Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920, several countries were restricted from releasing information due to wartime conditions. Today, we have access to so much more information.”

Widespread availability of data and a deeper public understanding of risks posed by COVID-19 have enabled governments and communities to take swift action, explained Dr. O’Kennedy, who has closely studied past pandemics and virus outbreaks. “This time, there is a strong and much-needed emphasis on social distancing on a worldwide scale,” he said. “That is something that was not fully understood amid previous pandemics.” When Spanish flu struck, the conditions caused by the First World War meant people across the world were brought together, but dispersed quickly once the conflict was over, creating an ideal environment for the virus to spread far and wide. The aftermath varied significantly, depending on whether cities chose to implement strict social distancing policies.

In the United States, for example, Philadelphia held its Liberty Loan parade amid the Spanish flu outbreak, while St. Louis enforced the closure of public places like schools, churches, playgrounds, and libraries while closely monitoring the activity of vehicles and pedestrians. While Philadelphia ultimately followed suit, it ended up with a much higher death rate than that of St. Louis, owing to its delay in employing non-pharmaceutical intervention in the form of social distancing. “The reason why the social distancing approach has proven to be so effective is that every individual plays a role in it, and thus it effectively mitigates spreading of infection between individuals,” said Dr. O’Kennedy.

“Even today, the response to the virus in China, where it first emerged, was defined by swift action in terms of social distancing policies. Viruses aim to spread; that’s their goal. They want to propagate as much as possible, which is why limiting social contact is one of the first, and most crucial measures, that any society needs to take.”

Every past pandemic - whether Spanish influenza, cholera, or HIV/AIDS pandemic – became a key historic event that caused a ripple effect across society, economically as well as socially. Dr O’Kennedy said the COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to represent a turning point in history, dramatically changing the way the world works. “We’re learning new ways of working, communicating, and educating,” he said. “We wouldn’t naturally function in these ways, but now that we are compelled to, there is the potential for us to take the ideas they give us forward, and change how we approach a lot of these activities.”

Qatar’s largely digitally-connected society could pave the way for a more efficient, sustainable system of working and learning, Dr. O’Kennedy believes. “Because of the pandemic, children are learning how to work online and are accessing an array of resources remotely,” he said. “Earlier in my career, I was responsible for distance education in Ireland at one point, and we would distribute books and physical resources for students to utilize. All of this is now digital, and everything is on our doorstep. “In fact, at Qatar Foundation, our Qatar Science & Technology Park is home to startups that are thriving in this environment because they provide services that can be delivered right to consumers’ doorsteps or utilized in their homes.

In Dr. O’Kennedy’s view, one of the defining features of a post-coronavirus society may be that people drive themselves to develop more advanced solutions to enable society to achieve more, reducing the need for physical interaction in pursuing progress.