The Pandemic Influenza of 1918 (January 1918 – December 1920), swept across the entire world. The pandemic was far-reaching, including those living in the Pacific islands and in the Arctic. As U.S. troops fanned out across Europe during World War I, the pandemic affected 500 million globally, and claimed 21 million lives, including over 670,000 Americans (16% of the total U.S. population in 1918). Researchers have studied the pandemic and believe the deadly virus started in the U.S., primarily at military bases such as Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. Soldiers from France and England visited Fort Funston for training U.S. troops. The spread of the disease ignited other flare-ups, as soldiers departed the U.S. to other bases in Europe.
Here in the U.S., measures to mitigate the spread of the virus to others in some cases were not adhered to. In Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco, planned parades to boost morale during the war effort (and to get people to buy war bonds) were scheduled. Both St. Louis and San Francisco opted not to have the parade, and heeded the advice of healthcare officials to postpone the event. Philadelphia, however, decided to have the parade. The result? More than 250,000 people died in Philadelphia.
In Boston, 202 people died on just one day—October 1. Philadelphia later topped that record, with 700 deaths in one 24-hour period. The disease wasn’t discriminatory. It devastated urban populations like Pittsburgh and New York City but also hit vulnerable rural areas like Arkansas, where the public health infrastructure was essentially nonexistent. the missteps of 1918 seem eerily prescient: A lack of leadership from Washington, with the gaps filled unevenly at the state and local levels. Public officials who either lied, dissembled or made up facts. Hucksters who used popular media to misinform the public and make a quick buck in the process. Public health infrastructure that was inadequate to the challenge. And ordinary citizens who often refused to heed the warning of experts.https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/17/spanish-flu-lessons-coronavirus-133888
As in 1918, the gaps in America’s health care infrastructure are potentially deadly. Every red state governor or legislator who refused the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid reimbursement has burdened its citizens with rural and small-town hospital closures. Their communities are unprepared for this disease. Many of their citizens suffer respiratory or immunodeficiency diseases that went untreated and have rendered them more susceptible to COVID-19. The absence of universal health coverage has contributed to poorer health, generally, and will likely encourage people everywhere, in red and blue states alike, to ration health care in precisely the moment when they should not.https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/17/spanish-flu-lessons-coronavirus-133888
To maintain high morale, wartime censors purposefully blocked accurate record-keeping and accurate reporting of those afflicted and deaths. The 1918 Pandemic, it is often referred to as the “Spanish Flu” since the the media in Spain were allowed to openly report about the pandemic. Spain was a neutral country in World War I. In the U.S. wartime censors worked with the media, and quickly jumped on calling it the “Spanish Flu”, perpetrating the myth of the pandemic to be race-related. The U.S. media also promoted the disease was fanned by Germany, as an attempt to use as a biological weapon against the U.S., France and England. In 2020, it is disheartening the media-barons use the Coronavirus (instead, calling it the Chinese Flu), and once again race-baiting a global pandemic to scare people. Due to the lack of leadership from the Trump administration, including careless use of the term blaming China for the virus, increases the likliehood of hate-mongering towards Asian Americans.
The biggest lesson from the 1918 pandemic is clearly, to tell the truth. People can deal with the truth, it’s the unknown that is much scarier.” -John Barry
Three Waves of the 1918 Pandemic
The first waves of the pandemic hit during March of 1918. During the following six months, the flu spread sporadically across the globe. During September through November, a second wave hit with ferocity, claiming the most deaths during the pandemic. The final wave hit in 1919, and finally subsided by that summer.
Worldwide, countries have focused efforts for pandemic preparedness. These programs include surveillance, diagnostics, screening of passengers traveling from a potential outbreak region, quarantine procedures, stockpiling antibiotics, antivirals, bacterial and viral vaccines and the distribution of medical supplies.
Sadly in the U.S., the Trump administration started cutting funding to the Center for Disease Control in 2018, and has proposed even further cuts for FY2021, yet to be voted on by Congress. https://fortune.com/2020/02/26/coronavirus-covid-19-cdc-budget-cuts-us-trump/
Catherine Arnold’s book provides deep insight into both the worldview and the U.S. responsiveness to a global pandemic. The stresses on various aspects of normal life, decent healthcare, proactive government planning and preparedness, are all acutely examined. Since the Pandemic of 1918, does the generational loss of history dilute current practices and perceptions?
The current COVID-19 pandemic is scary, and there’s no way around it. Our current generations have never faced this type of pandemic. But, we do have recorded history to learn from. Focus on your health, well-being, and the health and well-being of others. And, wash your hands.