When the "Spanish Flu" pandemic hit the world a century ago, not many people knew how it worked and how dangerous it was to humanity. In 1918, the world was busier about the effects of the First World War. War propaganda seems to be far more intense than health campaigns.
Thus the world in 1918-1919 recorded that the influenza epidemic had claimed about 50-100 million lives. This figure is a rough estimate considering that not all countries have conducted population censuses. The number of inhabitants of the earth at that time was estimated at around 1.7 billion people. The plague would later become a "forgotten pandemic."
In the Dutch East Indies, for example, according to historian Ravando Lie, the flu got various names. Quoting Sin Po Daily and Soerabaia reporter, the pandemic was referred to as "Strange Diseases", "Secret Diseases", and "Spanje Colds". There has also been a mistake by calling the flu the Russian Flu, an epidemic that actually ended in 1890 in the land of polar bears. Both Sin Po and the Soerabaia reporter later returned to using the name Spanish Flu, a term commonly used throughout the world at that time.
The origin of the name Spanish Flu is also interesting and illustrates how confusing information was about the plague at that time. There is no theory and scientific evidence that says the virus originated in Spain. Lie said, quoting Gina Kolata in "Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It", the name Spanish Flu is thought to have originated because the Spanish media was incessant in spreading the epidemic throughout the world. The Spanish themselves call the outbreak the "French Flu".
The ambiguity leads to various wrong assumptions. The Indies Light, for example, blamed the war in Europe for bad weather and a long dry season, and hence the plague spread easily in the Indies. But this view was denied by the De Sumatra Post. The newspaper referred to him only as a "People's Disease" with original origins from the Indies and not contagious. Of course, De Sumatra Post was wrong, and was forced to turn around asking all the other newspapers in the Dutch East Indies to make a short rubric to report on the dangers of this disease.
Deaths from the plague seemed to haunt the Dutch East Indies, especially Java. Soerabaia reporters said that until the end of 1918, data on residents who had died were around 1.5 million people and the majority of them were victims of the Spanish Flu. According to the Coloniaal Verslag statistics, flu was recorded as the leading cause of death in Central and East Java.
The large number of victims, said Pierre van der Eng, a researcher from the Australian National University (2020), angered the public, and the Batavia (Jakarta) newspaper Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad ran a critical article in August 1919 entitled 'Voices from the Grave'.
Two of Disruptor
We know that the Covid-19 outbreak that hit the world in early 2020 was on a different scale and period from the Spanish Flu. Advances in information technology in the 21st century, present extraordinary changes in human life globally. The internet has undermined the old order of information flow, and now everyone is a consumer as well as a producer of information via social media.
A research institute DataReportal, said 4.57 billion people now use the internet, and that means more than half of the planet's population. Of that number, as of April 2020, around 3.8 billion people are busy with their social media accounts every day.
This is the era in which digital technology companies dominate and determine the movement of information as well as the economy in the world. Tech titans like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (FAANG) now rank at the top of the New York stock market. The empowerment of social media is supported by three important infrastructures, namely communication technology (connectivity), virtual data warehouse (cloud), and mobile devices (mobile).
Almost all human activities today depend on this technology. The Google search engine, for example, is now used by more than 90 percent of internet users. The number of Facebook followers currently exceeds even the population of China. The market capitalization value of the top five digital giants exceeds the French economy, which means that the technology titans' market share is indeed extraordinary.
The traditional media landscape is pressured by this new technology. A number of traditional media have even bounced, and their audience has been taken over by social media. The new generation spends more of their time on these social media platforms than reading newspapers, watching TV or listening to the radio.
When the Covid-19 pandemic spread, the world was shocked, and this life-threatening disease brought great fear. The death toll from the corona virus has risen sharply in every country, and has even crippled the health systems of large countries such as America, and a number of countries in Europe which are known for the best health standards on earth.
Haunted by mass extinctions, humanity has taken a number of measures to keep the virus from spreading. While awaiting the struggle of scientists to create a vaccine, health protocols are strictly enforced in almost all countries of the world. The corona virus turns all normal social orders into abnormalities. Planes stopped flying, schools, stadiums, cinemas, malls and hotels closed, border controls between countries were tightened. Around the world echoes the suggestion of "Stay Home, Stay Safe".
If the internet is a shaker of the old information technology infrastructure, then Covid-19 is a disruptor agent for the social order which has been indifferent to natural cues. By staying at home now people think and rediscover what is lost: time together with family, the opportunity to enjoy a sky that is clearer from pollution, and a return to awareness of the importance of bodily health compared to whatever the world is trying to pursue. Social restrictions have evoked nostalgia for community warmth, and a longing for a return to nature.
The encounter of two "disruptor agents": the internet and Covid-19, suddenly became a double shock that had previously unimaginable impacts.
The first, of course internet technology has saved humanity from the bad effects of isolation. With social media, communication is still maintained even though it is virtual. That's why social media use is suddenly higher than it was before the pandemic. Data from Digital 2020 Global Statshot states that Facebook is the most used social media platform as of April 2020. After that followed by Youtube, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat. Even Twitter is said to get a big jump in users during the first quarter of this year.
Second, the effect of using technology in the dissemination of pandemic information has brought new problems. It is true that we need fast and reliable information to prevent the spread of viruses. There are many health journals that open their access to the public to get important information about Covid-19.
But not always the awareness of the importance of correct information arises. The public seems to be more easily enchanted by information obtained through social media applications on their cell phones.
The challenge now is which information can be trusted in the midst of an outbreak? Before the pandemic broke out, the world was already feeling the dark side of social media being driven by the tech company titan. Disinformation and misinformation spread and mislead and fracture social and political relations in a number of countries.
Even during pandemics, information battles often occur within the framework of political competition, and social media is their powerful tool to influence the public. For example, one group called for total isolation, while another refused on economic grounds. Other issues include whether chloroquine is effective enough for Covid-19 patients or other drugs. There is a crazy saying, for example, that if a disinfectant could be injected into the body it could prevent viral infection. Whether joking or not, Donald Trump's remarks in the US made a number of his followers obey. As a result, some of them were forced to leave this mortal world.
We are now not only dealing with a pandemic, but also what WHO calls an “infodemic”. Misinformation and disinformation are rampant via social media. Many misguided advice about how to survive the threat of a virus, for example by holding your breath for a moment, or taking certain vitamins can actually accelerate the corona virus infection. Hoaxes and fake news spread because legitimate sources are insufficiently supplied with information, or because the uncertain answers to this outbreak are generating massive panic and anxiety. Even calls from top officials are sometimes underestimated and the public is more influenced by “influencers” on social media.
Of course, not all social media are guilty of this situation. The digital giant companies that live in Silicon Valley, USA, also have moral values that want information to flow more freely, fairly, and democratically. This morality has helped the resistance of a number of citizens living under authoritarian regimes in a number of countries, such as during the Arab Spring movement decades ago. Raising global solidarity over major tragedies and natural disasters is an example of how social media is still very useful to the public.
Practically speaking, the pandemic is a good time to create a framework for social media technology companies to give more space to trusted sources. Information from dubious sources may not be disseminated until it has been assessed for its impact on the public. Avoid politically biased messages surrounding the pandemic. We need to remember that the virus itself does not recognize race, religion and even political parties.
The “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1919 taught us that poor communication made more victims fall. Today, we have powerful technology for disseminating information, something that didn't exist when the flu epidemic gripped the world a century ago. In dealing with the public health crisis, I think a sound communication policy should be part of a medical intervention against the pandemic.
By Nezar Patria
The above article was posted on Nezar Patria's Facebook account and I am posting it here with his permission.