Western Civilization and its Global Discontents in Pandemic: COVID-19 vs 1918 Flu – How technology changed our world!

Tim Fowler and I would like to thank the Body and Medicine in Latin Poetry Network for the opportunity to present at their one-day marathon webinar, Disease, Community and Communication from Antiquity to Today (19 June, 2021). In particular, we would like to thank Chiara Blanco (Trinity College, Oxford), Michael Goyette (Eckerd College), Allegra Hahn (Durham University), and Simona Martorana (Durham University).

The title of our talk was, Western Civilization and its Global Discontents in Pandemic: COVID-19 vs 1918 Flu – How technology changed our world!

Here is an abridged version of our argument -- CLICK HERE FOR THE POWERPOINT.
  • For this talk we used the symmetry between the 1918 Flu Pandemic and the 2020 COIVD-19 to explore in what ways our current pandemic is similar to recent pandemics and in what ways it is different. 

  • Examples of similarities include the way both pandemics revealed significant health disparities and social inequalities amongst western societies of the global north, particularly along lines of social class, gender, and ethnicity.
  • Other similarities include how both pandemics involved a series of epidemiological waves, along with a focus on addressing the airborne nature of both infectious diseases, including mask wearing, quarantine, social distancing, and hand washing


  • One key differences is that, while several vaccinations were created to address COVID-19, no vaccinations emerged to address the H1N1 virus upon which the 1918 pandemic was based.
  • The result was a massive loss of life during the 1918 pandemic, to such an extent that medical historians are not sure on the exact number of morbidity and mortality.
    • It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.
  • Probably one of the most important differences is that while the 1918 flu pandemic was a very modern phenomenon, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is a very postmodern phenomenon. 
  • Our argument is that, while there were some key changes in western societies of the global north as a function of COVID-19, the primary social determinant of change is technology. Without these technological advances, life post COVID-19 would probably not look much different to 2019. With them the world is profoundly different.
  • Examples of changes not driven by technology include  
    • New public health involvement in policy and politics. 
    • The new approach to government – get pragmatic or face ruin. 
    • A renewed commitment to infectious disease. 
    • The messy adaptability amongst citizens to life in pandemic.
  • The key technologies presently changing our world(s) are:
    • Medical Science and Vaccinations.
    • Amazon Society, Gig Services, and the Work-at-Home Economy.
    • Zoom Culture and Global Social Networks.
    • Virtual Science -- Simulating Public Health Issues. 
  • These technological innovations are not necessarily new. They have been making this impact for a few decades. The pandemic allowed them to emerge to the forefront of daily life in a way that they otherwise would not have.

In this short blog, we do not have time to unpack this argument. Our goal is to write a more in-depth summary for a general audience. We will post once it is published.