RUMINATING ON WHY the 1918 flu pandemic wasn’t better remembered, the story wasn’t being told right.
The vast majority of the victims—50 million of them at a conservative count—perished in a mere 13 weeks at the tail end of 1918, all over the globe. It was a planetary convulsion that was over in the blink of an eye, but whose impact reverberated through human societies for decades to come.
There is another way in which gender shapes our memory of the 1918 flu. Though more men than women died in that pandemic, women generally nursed the ill—and given the state of medical science at the time, their efforts were often what determined whether a patient lived or died.
It was the women who registered the sights, sounds and smells of the sickroom. Crucial eyewitnesses, they were the ones who connected the personal tragedies with the public memory; but with relatively few exceptions, their voices haven’t properly been heard.
In 1918, doctors and nurses were working with less knowledge and fewer tools than their modern counterparts—they had no ventilators, for example, and no antibiotics for fighting the potentially lethal complication of bacterial pneumonia.
What Caused the Spanish Flu?
It’s unknown exactly where the particular strain of influenza that caused the pandemic came from; however, the 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, America and areas of Asia before spreading to almost every other part of the planet within a matter of months.
Despite the fact that the 1918 flu wasn’t isolated to one place, it became known around the world as the Spanish flu, as Spain was hit hard by the disease and was not subject to the wartime news blackouts that affected other European countries. (Even Spain’s king, Alfonso XIII, reportedly contracted the flu.)
One unusual aspect of the 1918 flu was that it struck down many previously healthy, young people—a group normally resistant to this type of infectious illness—including a number of World War I servicemen.
In fact, more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war. Forty percent of the U.S. Navy was hit with the flu, while 36 percent of the Army became ill, and troops moving around the world in crowded ships and trains helped to spread the killer virus.
Although the death toll attributed to the Spanish flu is often estimated at 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide, other estimates run as high as 100 million victims—around 3 percent of the world’s population. The exact numbers are impossible to know due to a lack of medical record-keeping in many places.
What is known, however, is that few locations were immune to the 1918 flu—in America, victims ranged from residents of major cities to those of remote Alaskan communities. Even President Woodrow Wilson reportedly contracted the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
Why Was The Spanish Flu Called The Spanish Flu?
The Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain, though news coverage of it did. During World War I, Spain was a neutral country with a free media that covered the outbreak from the start, first reporting on it in Madrid in late May of 1918.
Meanwhile, Allied countries and the Central Powers had wartime censors who covered up news of the flu to keep morale high. Because Spanish news sources were the only ones reporting on the flu, many believed it originated there (the Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus came from France and called it the “French Flu.”).
How U.S. Cities Tried to Stop The 1918 Flu Pandemic
A devastating second wave of the Spanish Flu hit American shores in the summer of 1918, as returning soldiers infected with the disease spread it to the general population—especially in densely-crowded cities.
Without a vaccine or approved treatment plan, it fell to local mayors and healthy officials to improvise plans to safeguard the safety of their citizens. With pressure to appear patriotic at wartime and with a censored media downplaying the disease’s spread, many made tragic decisions.
Philadelphia’s response was too little, too late. Dr. Wilmer Krusen, director of Public Health and Charities for the city, insisted mounting fatalities were not the “Spanish flu,” but rather just the normal flu. So on September 28, the city went forward with a Liberty Loan parade attended by tens of thousands of Philadelphians, spreading the disease like wildfire.
In just 10 days, over 1,000 Philadelphians were dead, with another 200,000 sick. Only then did the city close saloons and theatres. By March 1919, over 15,000 citizens of Philadelphia had lost their lives.
St. Louis, Missouri, was different: Schools and movie theaters closed and public gatherings were banned. Consequently, the peak mortality rate in St. Louis was just one-eighth of Philadelphia’s death rate during the peak of the pandemic.
Citizens in San Francisco were fined $5—a significant sum at the time—if they were caught in public without masks and charged with disturbing the peace.
Spanish Flu Pandemic Ends
By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.
Almost 90 years later, in 2008, researchers announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia.
As if we needed reminding, in 2020, a pandemic is social and political as well as biological. In the end, it becomes personal too. The history gets tangled up with the history of the world. The warp and the weft are knit, the story is told.
Each of these modern day pandemics brings renewed interest in and attention to the Spanish Flu, or “forgotten pandemic,” so-named because its spread was overshadowed by the deadliness of WWI and covered up by news blackouts and poor record-keeping.
COVID-19 is a zoonosis: A personal decision
We don’t know yet how much the world will change “after COVID-19.” Nevertheless, we can already help to make it better. At least that is what I want to try to do.
There is another thing both diseases have in common. They are zoonotic diseases; they were caused by viruses that are native to animals and that somehow crossed the biological barrier to humans and mutated into deadly illnesses.
The Spanish flu and the novel coronavirus are by no means the only examples: the HIV virus, the 2002 SARS virus and the 2009 swine flu also originated in the animal kingdom.
So what if we stopped eating animals?Prakriti Verma