As we live through the current Coronavirus pandemic there have been many comparisons made to the 1918 pandemic which infected about 500 million people and was originally mislabeled as the Spanish flu. In order to reduce unnecessary panic it’s important to understand that while both were caused by influenza and both have affected millions throughout the world there are more differences than similarities. Additionally, there are many things we can learn from the previous outbreak that may help us with the current one.
The 1918 pandemic began just as the whole world was anxiously awaiting the end of World War I, which began in 1914 and claimed approximately twenty-millions lives. Since the United States joined late in the war our casualties were modest compared to the European countries. America lost about 117,000 soldiers during WW I while in less than two years (1918-1920) America lost 675,000 people to influenza. Although the virus originated in either Kansas or somewhere in China, it was initially characterized as the Spanish Flu simply because Spain was neutral in WW I and therefore didn’t censor the media from reporting the increasing spread of the virus. Most other governments however, eager to keep morale high during the final chapter of the war, smothered reports from doctors and reporters about a mysterious illness that was moving quickly from one small town to another. By the time the virus hit the military personnel, who obviously lived in close quarters, it was too late.
Adding to the spread and hysteria in America was the decision in Philadelphia to go ahead with the Liberty Loan Parade in September of 1918. Once again, if there had been more emphasis placed on the virulence of this virus then a well informed population may have thought better of bringing 200,000 people together in close proximity. By the end of October there were almost 50,000 cases of influenza in Philadelphia and 12,000 deaths. Sadly, the pandemic of 1918 affected young and middle aged people even more than the elderly, so a considerable portion of that generation was wiped out just as the war was ending.
Although the viruses of 1918 and 2020 are both similar in nature, and probably moved from animals to humans, we need to remember that the previous pandemic occurred before the advent of antibiotics and many of the current medical interventions we now have. If you were infected in the early 1900’s traditional medical procedures were blood-letting, enemas and whiskey. And while antibiotics do not kill viruses they are effective against complications that often occur when a patient’s immune system becomes threatened.
If we are to glean anything from the past that might assist us today, then we must remember the number one reason for over thirty-million deaths in the early 1900’s: Lack of truth and reliable information. People of the early 1900’s may have been misinformed but they were not stupid or apathetic. No one can be expected to make the right decision with the wrong facts. So in the coming months, as we move from isolation to small gatherings to business as usual, we will need to be on the lookout for a possible second wave of the virus and demand complete transparency from all of our elected officials.