Monday, April 27, 2020

Aftermath: 2 - Spanish Flu 1918 -1920

Annamaria on Monday

There is a big difficulty in assessing how the Spanish Flu changed the world, because it came toward the end of a long, drawn-out and devastating war.   Ensuing changes can be traced to war the and to the pandemic, but which is which is somewhat tricky to parse out.  Before we give that question a go, a little background.

One of the results of both wars and pandemics is that, when they hit, they often speed or slow the pace of changes already in process.  In the hundred and fifty years before the 1914-20 two-fisted attack, the life expectancy of humans had doubled in all regions the world.  The war-plus-epidemic knocked that progress back sixty years.  A Finn who could have expected to live until forty-five in 1916, suddenly could expect to live till only thirty.  Part of this result stemmed from the war, but most of it came from the pandemic. 

The Spanish flu wasn’t really Spanish at all.  The latest research proved it was an avian virus, type H1-N1 that first produced an epidemic in New York City.  Best guess at this point, however, is that it entered the human population in Kentucky where the first Americans to go to World War I had been in training.  The troops came to New York to embark for France, brought the bug with them, and spread it around before they left.  They also took it with them.  At least this is the conclusion of the latest and best research.

The combatants in the war—both the Allies and those fighting with Germany did not want to admit that their troops were infected, because that would have adversely affected their hopes of victory.   So on both sides they forbade the press to report on flu deaths.  Spain was neutral, so their newspapers carried the story, and their nationality also became the flu’s.

Trying to conclude how many people died in the Spanish Flu Pandemic has been challenging.  Statistics like the ones we learn every day now, were not accurately kept.   Many studies have tried to pinpoint the number.  As of now, the most respected of them says almost certainly 50 million died, but it very well could have been double that.  Compare this to the war’s toll: Military and civilian casualties of the war were great—somewhere be fifteen and nineteen million were killed.  Horrifying, to be sure, but still only a fraction of what the flu took—which was between 2.7% and 5.4% of the world population.

Because the average age of humans was much lower than today’s, the pandemic took may more young people, who also seemed to be particularly vulnerable.  Perhaps because they had not developed immunities from previous bouts with similar bugs, e.g. the Russian flu pandemic of 1889-90.  Twenty to forty-year-olds accounted for almost half of the dead.  One theory is that their strong immune systems over-reacted and, in trying to attack the virus, attacked their lungs. 

Because the countries fighting in WWI were hiding the facts, they lagged in declaring war on the virus.  We have all heard enough I am sure about the aftermath of giving a pandemic virus the least bit of leeway.  As far as we now know, Albert Gitchel, the cook at Camp Fuston in Kansas came down with coughing, fever, and headaches on the 4th of March 1918.  The Americans who left for the front via NYC were the folks he helped to feed.  By later that spring three-quarters of the French soldiers and half the British combatants fell ill.  By May the bug was in North Africa and Bombay.  In June it reached China, and by July Australia.

No preventative measures were taken until August 1918.  Until then, with thousands on both sides of the war sick and dying, the existence of the disease among the troops was a military secret.  Once the cat was out of the bag, it became de rigueur to do many of the things now familiar to all of us.  That first wave of disease seems to have been mild by comparison to what came later.  There is evidence that the virus mutated into an even more deadly form and then went with the troops from Plymouth, England and reached the ends of the earth in a second wave.  There was also a third wave that hit twelve thousand Australians, and among many others King Alphonso XIII of Spain and Woodrow Wilson while he was attending the peace talks in Versailles.  Both heads of countries survived.   The virus itself petered out in 1920 in Japan.

When it was all over, somewhere around 500 million people worldwide had become infected.  One-tenth of them had died.

The first change brought on by the Spanish Flu Pandemic was the end of World War I.  The battles had pretty much reached a stalemate, but the combatant sides couldn’t find a way to end the war to end all wars.  By August 1918, when the death toll from the virus could no longer be hidden and the troops could no longer be expected to fight, they finally found a way to broker a cease fire.

Unfortunately, the very next thing made the flu pandemic worse: on 11 November 1918 celebrations and parades brought together gatherings of thousand all over the world.  I don’t have to tell you that the virus turned out the big winner at those events.

The following winter millions were infected, thousands died, hospitals were overwhelmed and the shortage of doctors and nurses became acute.  I can’t bring myself to describe it all in detail.  You know what’s happening today say in New York City, what has happened in Milan….  Multiply that several fold and you will get an idea of what the world was like. 

The Spanish Flu Pandemic led to enormous improvements in public health, health education, development of techniques to prevent the spread of disease.  More research was funded.


Then as now, more of the poor died than the rich.  In those days, the upper classes believed that the poor were more likely to fall ill because they were inferior types of human beings.   But when the King of Spain and the President of the United States got sick, that theory went out the window.  Good riddance!

In the wake of the devastation, healthcare for all, free of charge became the rule in many countries.  Many nations also created more coordinated government health care efforts, and countries learned to cooperate by sharing information, especially on epidemics.  By 1919 the League of Nations had a health branch than eventually became the World Health Organization.

Governments learned to be on their guard. 

But then…

Last week, my research told me that before the Black Death, things had gotten so good that people were more healthy and stronger and then—boom, along came the plague.

Then half a millennium later, the life expectancy of humans had relatively recently doubled.  There was everything to feel good about and then—boom, along came the Spanish Flu.

Then a hundred years later, the best-off people in my country decided it was time to forget what we learned from 50 million deaths that plagued our great grandparents.   We didn’t need to be prepared for pandemic disease.  And then—BOOM!

We have a lot to learn from what’s happening now.  That’s my topic for next week.

In the meanwhile, let’s not forget this:

Thank you, Nurses
Thank you, Doctors
Thank you, Technicians
Thank you, Orderlies.
We pray you will be safe!


  1. The cycles of history, and mankind's inability to maintain memory of them. Sigh.

    1. EvKa, you know what a history nerd I am. Perhaps government leaders should have to take a history course as well as an oath before they take office. On second thought... Nah! Many of them don't even take their oath seriously.

  2. Thanks, Sis. Those are details I never knew...nor imagined I'd ever be relying upon in carrying on my every day life. Stay safe.