Building a stronger response to COVID-19 by studying past pandemics

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

As the global community ushered in 2020, no one was prepared for the #COVID-19 pandemic. This unsuspecting virus which is now destabilizing the global economy while simultaneously unleashing untapped opportunities, unprecedented fear, and testing the effectiveness of our health and social institutions is wreaking havoc across the globe. This is not the New Year millions of people anticipated. The restriction of movement even in the presence of apparent freedom is forcing many to rethink what it means to be free. And families are faced with making unpopular and rigid economic decisions which are destabilizing their equilibrium and exacerbating conflicts as individuals try to make sense of their present realities while shunning unimaginable futures as this pandemic will leave the global community with a traumatized population.

Many employers are attempting to navigate unchartered business waters while at the same time work with employees to understand the perceived and real complexities of remote working. Operating with reduced profit margins and staffing is forcing companies to invest in tools to remain relevant during this time. And the deleterious effects on supply chains are affecting everyone as countries are faced with shortages in goods and services as an increase in demand is contributing to shortages and increasing prices. Ultimately, business operations across the globe will never be the same as the multidimensional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it unprecedented economic and social change with rippling domino effects which are severely impacting vulnerable and marginalized communities and countries.

COVID-19 is not the first deadly virus which has impacted the global community, infected large numbers of people and increased human casualty, turning once vibrant individuals into mere statistical data for assessment and research.

Though this pandemic appears to be challenging the fortitude of scientists, world leaders, members of the medical fraternity and everyday citizens it will not be the last one the global community will have to combat. What we learn during this pandemic may equip us with the global moral leadership, scientific and medical innovation, knowledge, skills, technologies and human capacity and resource to be resilient and inclusive, to co-create a socially just, equitable, inclusive and sustainable world, and to face any impending viruses and pandemics in the future.

Leaning from past pandemics such as the (H1N1)pdm09 virus where the “CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States. Additionally, CDC estimated that 151,700-575,400 people worldwide died from (H1N1)pdm09 virus infection during the first year the virus circulated.” And the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus which left its mark on the global community in 2002 – 2004 with 8,098 confirmed cases and 774 deaths. Especially, the great influenza pandemic from 1918-1920 which remains one of the worst pandemics the world has ever seen as “…It is estimated that about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the virus, leading to at least 50 million deaths worldwide, with 550,000-675,000 occurring in the United States…”. These pandemics have left a historical road map for the global community studying them can assist with the development of present-day and future responses.

As countries grapple to develop responses to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus, at this time in writing data from the John Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center shows a total of 3,544,281 confirmed cases globally with 248,816 deaths. Studying the risks, impact, spread and the economic and social costs of (H1N1)pdm09, SARS and the great influenza pandemic of 1918 informed some of the present COVID-19 responses which are being implemented to slow the spread, flatten the curve, and prepare for the second and third waves of the virus, however, deeper study into these viruses can add value to the co-development of people-centered comprehensive post-pandemic planning and recovery at the family, community and state levels.

“The Great Influenza Pandemic is estimated to have reduced real per capita GDP and consumption of the typical country by 6.0% and 8.1%, respective.” One can only imagine the micro, mezzo, and macro-economic cost as a result of COVID-19. On Friday, April 29th, 2020 the stock market is showed declines as “The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by more than 622 points, the S&P 500 by more than 81 points and the Nasdaq composite index by more than 284 points.”. Many countries are tapping into their reserves while vulnerable countries are turning to international agencies which increases their debts and structural adjustment programs. Multinational companies are losing money by the hour, small and medium businesses are closing their doors, and global leaders are being tested to their very core.

Leaders often forget that the richest resource of any country is its human capital at all levels when human capital is depleted the socio-economic growth and development of countries are significantly affected.

While assessing the macroeconomic impact of COVID-19 there ought to be an intentional concentration on the microeconomic impact on small and medium businesses (formal and informal), families, and communities. COVID-19 is affecting the daily lives of individuals changing their realities in the process, and unfortunately, vulnerable populations are being hit the hardest- widening the gaps between the rich and the poor, increasing lack of trust in state officials and institutions and it seems apparent that Spencer’s theory “survival-of-the-fittest” is alive among us as vulnerable and marginalized populations are being seen as dispensable.

If countries fail to protect the “smallest” or least acknowledged group in society then the socio-economic advancement and sustainable development of societies will be significantly hindered.

COVID-19 is teaching the global community many lessons individually and collectively as communities experience the direct and indirect impact of this virus. Therefore, studying the great pandemic of 1918 and the impact and response of other pandemics can enhance the response to COVID-19 creating proactive cultures across all sectors. This proactive culture will enable the global community to develop adequate responses to protect all citizens equitably and provide measures of security and care for all groups of people residing in a nation-state including international students, workers, migrants and refugees.

This pandemic has brought the global community together to create solutions to the preexisting problems it has exacerbated. While this is a critical time in history we ought to identify emerging opportunities and embrace them to develop people-centered systems that are adequate, responsive and technology-driven, and it may be that the popular axiom by Benjamin Franklin “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” can be applied to present and post-pandemic responses.


Sherna Alexander Benjamin is a consultant, trainer/facilitator and advocate. She is one of the Co-Founders of CBRC and a content creator.

#COVID19 #PhysicalDistancing #1918Influenza #Pandemic #Health #CDC #WHO #CapacityBuilding #NewJersey #TCBRC #Collective #Liberation #Healing #EconomicDownTurn #JobInsecurity #UnitedStates #Caribbean #Sherna #Alexander #Benjamin

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