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How Museum of London saw ‘the next pandemic’ 2 years before Covid-19 struck

PUBLISHED: 12:00 23 May 2020

A smallpox patient. Picture: Museum of London

A smallpox patient. Picture: Museum of London

© Museum of London

It’s uncanny the way curators at the Museum of London Docklands seemed to have predicted Covid 19 two years before the outbreak.

Picture: Museum of LondonPicture: Museum of London

The curators and their colleagues at the sister museum in the City staged a predictive Disease X: London’s next epidemic? exhibition back in 2018 for the centenary of the Spanish Flu pandemic. And it has gone online this week.

It posed the question about what would come next. Two years later came the answer – coronavirus! “We didn’t attempt to predict what might cause a future outbreak or when it might occur,” social history curator Vyki Sparkes insists.

“We opened the exhibition two years before the current Covid-19 global crisis, aimed at linking the past, present and future with historic collections, research and interviews with epidemiologists to look at what impact any outbreak may have on London.

A poster. Picture: Museum of LondonA poster. Picture: Museum of London

“Our lives have changed dramatically since then, in a way we couldn’t anticipate.”

The exhibition opened in November 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of so-called Spanish Flu as well as Armistice Day ending the First World War.

It ran until March last year, but has now gone online with renewed public interest in how pandemics like Covid-19 spread so rapidly.

Covid-19 is not the first time in our history that a deathly virus has hit these shores.

The Black Death took 35,000 lives in London in 1348-50, The Plague killed 100,000 in 1665, cholera killed 45,000 in 1831-32 and HIV 40,000 between 1981 and 2018.

But the most deadly of all by numbers was Spanish Flu in 1918 which claimed 228,000 lives in Britain, including 18,000 in London, and at least 20 million worldwide. It went almost unnoticed across Europe with attention focused on The Great War, only getting its Spanish tag because neutral Spain openly reported the outbreak while other countries including Britain kept the wraps on it.

The Disease X: London’s next epidemic? is about historical maladies, their impact on London and the methods to fight back.

It also highlights development of the first vaccines, the global eradication of smallpox in 1980 and the pioneering work by the Dean Street clinic to reduce HIV infections, showing there’s always hope for a cure — whatever pandemic hits us next.


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