Since we’re all thinking about pandemics right now, I’ve been reading again about the 1918 Influenza, which may be the last time a pandemic caused this much global chaos. It’s too early to really compare Covid-19 and the 1918 Influenza, but knowing a little about what happened in 1918 might help us face 2020 with cooler heads.
First, the influenza wasn’t really Spanish. In fact, it probably started in the United States and spread overseas because of the movements of troops involved in World War I. The reason it was called the Spanish Flu was that Spain, which stayed neutral in the war, was one of the few countries that reported the truth about the devastation of the disease. The combatant countries, including the United States, tried to downplay the influenza outbreak to boost morale. Of course, newspapers’ declarations that the dangers were small or already past probably didn’t make people feel any better as they watched loved ones get ill and even die. If people trusted newspapers before, the Influenza pandemic made them much more skeptical about believing everything they read.
About 500,000 million people across every part of the world are estimated to have caught the 1918 Influenza (out of a population of close to 2 billion, so almost a quarter of all humans), and 25 to 50 million to have died, making the death toll 1 to 2% of the global population (In comparison, the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed 30 to 60% of the populations it infected). Young adults were hit the worst, perhaps because their robust immune systems violently overreacted to the virus. More US soldiers died of the Influenza than from the war itself, though wartime conditions may have weakened people’s resistance. With large numbers of unprepared people getting sick and dying at once, some large US cities had to bury the dead in mass graves.
Because so many doctors and nurses were serving in the war, cities in the United States saw a shortage of medical professionals to care for the sick, with stories circulating of nurses being kidnapped to care for ill families (though how these desperately sick people supposedly forced the nurses to stay is unclear). Regardless, as in 2020, the medical professionals and other essential service providers made heroic efforts to help communities overwhelmed by illness.
Below: Overflowing influenza hospital ward, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Wearing masks was a common way to try to prevent the flu from spreading. Those masks that were made of gauze did little to stop germs from spreading, though (they didn’t know about “three layers of cotton”), and they were controversial then even as they are now.
Our ancestors from 1918 eventually practiced social distancing, too, and that did work to slow the spread of the disease. Public gatherings were banned, and schools and universities closed, some being converted to temporary hospitals. This was so successful in some places that by Christmas of 1918, officials decided to relax the rules for the holiday. This led to a new outbreak of the disease at the beginning of 1919. As an example of how social distancing could protect a population, remote Kane County in southern Utah did not see any deaths from the 1918 Influenza until February of 1920, just as the pandemic was winding down.
To learn more about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, I recommend John Barry’s The Great Influenza.
Below: Image of a masked mail carrier during the 1918 Influenza pandemic, courtesy of US National Archives.