COVID and the Spanish Flu: History Repeating Itself

As the world is bestowed once again by a wave of active cases and every organisation, business and event slowly find themselves more and more restricted as another shutdown seems imminent, millions are starting to prepare to hunker down for the second time this year in order to wait out this second wave. Most governments are beginning to take this surge of numbers more seriously and direct action is once again being taken in order to control the situation.

A sign on a local shop regarding its closure due to Government regulations

Quarantine, isolation and limitations on public gatherings have become the new status quo, as most governments attempt everything to be able to limit the spread of the virus and ensure that their healthcare systems are not overwhelmed.

One might think that this is describing the current COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so, however it is an almost identical situation as the world found itself multiple times before, most notably almost exactly a century ago with the Spanish Flu outbreak.

First of all, what was the Spanish Flu?

The Spanish Flu was an influenza pandemic that started in 1918. The virus ended up infecting around 500 million people worldwide, from which between 20 and 50 million died. That’s a death toll of around 1.5 to 3% of the total world population and that time and more than the entire fatality count of the First World War (between 22 and 40 million) that ended in the same year that this virus started.

Image of a typical hospital setting for those with the Spanish Flu

The Beginning

During the Spanish Flu, major countries around the world were mostly preoccupied with ending the war and dealing with the devastation it left behind. This focus on war forced governments to lie about how dangerous the Spanish Flu is to keep the war machines going, telling people that “This is ordinary influenza by another name” and “This is not a public health measure. There is no cause for alarm.” After the war, with soldiers going back home and spreading it like wildfire, and with cities like Philadelphia began digging mass-graves, closing schools, theatres, churches and any public gatherings.

Same thing happened at the start of this health disaster, with China initially silencing Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor now being hailed a hero for attempting to raise alarms about the issue, who is currently in a grave due to the virus he tried to stop. Then China tried to downplay the spread of the virus, with the World Health Organisation tweeting:

even though there was already enough evidence earlier within the month that human-to-human transmission was the cause of some of the cases.

Lying to the People

Even after all of this, China is now looking at shifting the blame of the virus to the United States, with Lijian Zhao (Spokesman & Deputy Director General, Information Department, Foreign Ministry according to his Twitter), mass sharing a GlobalResearch article stating that the virus began in Fort Detrick, Maryland. This article was written by Lawrence Romanoff, a management consultant and a professor in Shanghai’s Fudan University with quite a number of articles praising China and throwing the US under the bus, not that he doesn’t have any right to given how Trump dismissed the virus even after it began ravaging through Europe and seeping through to the States, with tweets like:

and retweeting posts like the following by conservative reporter Ryan Saavedra, throwing the blame ball away from himself and comparing to ‘worse’ cases (Check out this article about ‘Whataboutism’ for more information about this political phenomena).

These lies not only dissuade people from taking the necessary measures to protect themselves but also reduces the trust people have in the government and health authorities.

In 1918, when these lies were being uncovered, trust in authorities disintegrated, and, not knowing what to believe, people also began to lose trust in one another. They became alienated and isolated, with one survivor stating that there was an “aura of constant fear”  “It kept people apart … You had no community life, you had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing … People were afraid to kiss one another, people were afraid to have anything that made contact because that’s how you got the flu … It destroyed those contacts and destroyed the intimacy that existed amongst people.”

This issue of trust became such an issue that Victor Vaughan, the general surgeon of the Army, stated that “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth within a few weeks.”

This situation became so bad the Red Cross reported instances of people starving to death in rural communities because everybody was afraid to bring them food.

This lack of trust is becoming ever increasingly more evident in today’s world, with Chinese citizens becoming more and more vocal in their opposition against the state’s restricted media and the delays of information.

In Turkey the lack of trust in the government so low that shelves were being stripped bare last March in preparation.

The United States isn’t fairing much better, with a poll showing that only 50% of Americans believing in what they hear from the media and only 37% believe in what they’re hearing from the President.

Truth and trust is what will get us through this pandemic in a more positive note, as seen a hundred years ago in cities like San Francisco. There, the local government, businesses and medical professionals worked together, passing laws to ensure people wore masks when they are in a public space, while also managing to keep the community working together, with students, teachers, retirees, and homemakers rolling up their sleeves and aiding the ill when the overburdened Red Cross couldn’t manage to reach them.

The Anti-Mask Rhetoric

People against the use of masks to protect each other from the spread of the virus isn’t something new. In 1918 the use of masks was mandatory, and anyone found not wearing the mask was charged with breaking the peace, warned and for subsequent violations, fined or jailed. However this didn’t stop around 20% of the population to ignore this ordinance, and some people in San Francisco went so far as to even create an “Anti-Mask League” to pressure the Mayor and the city health officer to repeal this policy. Their reasons as to this request was the questioning the scientific data and the “infringement” of civil liberties.

An Officer warning a man for not wearing a mask

This situation almost completely resonates what is currently going on, with many people either not bothering to use a mask or are completely against its use, citing fake medical issues, their ‘constitutional rights’ or ”The masks don’t do anything and are just a scheme to get people to buy them”. Some people have gone as far as to buy $10 “breathable” mesh masks that do nothing to protect against the virus to force themselves into stores that require the mask.

An example of mash masks being sold online. Don’t ask for a link, I’m not going to support their sales.

The Re-opening

Over the past few months most countries decided to reopen for the summer season as their active case number was going down. Some, like Malta, took it a bit to the extreme, with no checks at the airports, no limitation of crowd numbers, no requirements for large parties or feasts, acting as if nothing had ever happened and its back to business as usual. Now most of these places are facing the consequences, with an amount of cases that put the first wave to shame and the gradual reintroduction of the measures.

This situation is an exact repetition as to what happened in several U.S. Cities in 1918, mainly in Saint Louis and Denver, where the number of cases and especially the death toll ended up becoming higher than the first wave ever reached.

San Francisco declared victory over the virus after just 5 weeks and fully reopened, with whistles blowing to signify the end of the shutdown and people poured out of their homes, throwing their masks and celebrating en masse. The situation got so bad so quickly that the Mayor attempted to shut down again, but many citizens were frustrated and even resisted.

Parades in San Fransisco to celebrate their “victory” over the Spanish Flu

There is the rhetoric that a reopening is necessary to stimulate the economy, however if we keep comparing to the Spanish Flu, studies of this turbulent period showed that cities in the United States that adopted non-pharmaceutical interventions (actions excluding getting vaccinated and taking medicine, that help slow down a pandemic flu) earlier and left them in place for longer did better both health-wise and economically. We should not look at health and economy as adversaries, but as one and the same.

When is all this going to end?

It’s way too difficult to even speculate.

If you’re referring to COVID-19 itself, we will either find a vaccine and eradicate it (there is promising work being undertaken all over the world) , or a herd immunity is developed (which requires at least 60% of us to be immune to it to reduce the spread).

If, on the other hand, you’re referring to the social restrictions, they will most likely not simply end one fine morning, but in a gradual manner, until the effects subside, and people stop worrying. Keep in mind that what followed the Spanish Flu was the Roaring Twenties, a phase of euphoria, with optimism sky-high from a populations which has gone through so much death.

With luck the similarities with the previous century end there, as what followed this decade of bliss was a Great Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes.

Epidemiologist Stephen Morse wrote in an analysis of the data. “The lessons of 1918, if well heeded, might help us to avoid repeating the same history today.” We might not have heeded this advice till now, but hopefully our leaders start to look at the past to make sure this second spike doesn’t end up worst than the first and this disaster is stopped prematurely.

Written by: Nathan Portelli


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