Covid-19 seems to have originated in China, but we can never be 100% certain, since it also appeared simultaneously in places like Italy and Spain. However, we’re more sure where the 1918 pandemic began. And if we want to call the current pandemic, “the China Flu,” we would have to honestly call the 1918 pandemic, “the American Flu.”
“The first known case was reported at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918,” as reported by History.com. But it didn’t stay in Kansas. Months later, it appeared in Europe.
Just before breakfast on the morning of March 4, Private Albert Gitchell of the U.S. Army reports to the hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of the cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, over 100 of his fellow soldiers had reported similar symptoms, marking what are believed to be the first cases in the historic influenza pandemic of 1918. . .
It is thought that American soldiers carried the disease to Europe during “The Great War,” (now known as the “First” World War, or WWI). Due to wartime censorship and propaganda, the cases were not reported to the public by any of the combatant countries. By summer, cases were arising in Europe. However, it was kept quiet.
. . . similar outbreaks in army camps and prisons in various regions of the country. The disease soon traveled to Europe with the American soldiers heading to aid the Allies on the battlefields of France. (In March 1918 alone, 84,000 American soldiers headed across the Atlantic; another 118,000 followed them the next month.) Once it arrived on a second continent, the flu showed no signs of abating: 31,000 cases were reported in June in Great Britain.
NOT REALLY THE “SPANISH” FLU
Spain was not involved in that war, so the truth of the pandemic was only reported there. And, therefore, for all of history, Spain is incorrectly and unfairly thought to be the source of “the Spanish Flu.” Ironically, the Spanish called it “the French Flu,” since Americans had spread it to France before it attacked Spain.
That site notes that, “The flu would eventually kill 675,000 Americans and an estimated 20 million to 50 million people around the world, proving to be a far deadlier force than even the First World War.” Imagine that—50 million—when the total world population was about 1.8 billion. If that rate hit us this time, when world population is now 7.8 billion, we’d lose 217 million today. That’s more than the entire population of Brazil—or two-thirds of the American population.
As we’ve heard, the flu dies down during the summer, when we are out in the open more. It’s actually surprising that cases are spiking now. They should be abating. And while some people are also pooh-poohing the risk of a “second wave,” that’s when the most damage was done the last time.
While the global pandemic lasted for two years, a significant number of deaths were packed into three especially cruel months in the fall of 1918. Historians now believe that the fatal severity of the. . .“second wave” was caused by a mutated virus spread by wartime troop movements. . .
As U.S. troops deployed en masse for the war effort in Europe, they carried the. . .flu with them. Throughout April and May of 1918, the virus spread like wildfire through England, France, Spain and Italy. An estimated three-quarters of the French military was infected in the spring of 1918 and as many as half of British troops. Yet the first wave of the virus didn’t appear to be particularly deadly, with symptoms like high fever and malaise usually lasting only three days. According to limited public health data from the time, mortality rates were similar to seasonal flu. . .
Reported cases. . .dropped off over the summer of 1918, and there was hope at the beginning of August that the virus had run its course. In retrospect, it was only the calm before the storm. Somewhere in Europe, a mutated strain of the Spanish flu virus had emerged that had the power to kill a perfectly healthy young man or woman within 24 hours of showing the first signs of infection.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
We are in the middle of two crises at once—a pandemic, and a financial crisis that could become “The Great Depression II.” However, that is unlikely, because we learned from the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. Massive government involvement can keep the entire system from collapsing. Likewise, we also have the dubious good fortune of having the 1918 pandemic as a guide.
WebMD says that we don’t have to assume we’ll have 50 million deaths this time. Experts offer four takeaways:
• Here’s the first: As devastating as the current pandemic may be, the  flu pandemic remains the worst in world history.
• Here’s the second takeaway: They didn’t even know it was a virus. . .transferred person-to-person through respiratory drops, by coughing and sneezing [and even talking].
• The third takeaway: Despite those differences, the parallels between 1918 and 2020 are still striking. In both cases, there was no vaccine and no treatment for the disease along with an overriding fear that a besieged health care system might crack.
• And here’s takeaway No. 4: In both pandemics, the most effective immediate response was — and is — social distancing
SLOW FEDERAL RESPONSE
Although it wasn’t stated as a “takeaway,” there was a fifth comparison between 1918 and 2020: “At first, they tell the public it’s not a big problem. . . It wasn’t until the fall. . .that Washington, D.C., got tough. In the meantime, the absence of a federal response “left cities and states to go off on their own and make decisions for themselves.”
And a sixth: “many chose the economy over public health — and they put off social distancing, with fateful results. While cities like Seattle and San Francisco ordered people to wear masks if they were out in public, many others did not.”
A seventh: a full decade before we realized the virus spread in the air, we had mask laws: “cities that acted earliest and most forcefully — like St. Louis, which imposed a near total lockdown within two days of its first Spanish flu case — had much lower peak death rates.” Actions included, “mask laws, business-hour restrictions, and the shuttering of schools, theaters, churches and dance halls.”
And eight: According to the CDC, “Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.” Note that the 20-40 age group was who was in the trenches, fighting in WWI.
WORSE THAN THE BLACK PLAGUE
“The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. . .has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. . .
The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years. The influenza virus had a profound virulence, with a mortality rate at 2.5% compared to the previous influenza epidemics, which were less than 0.1%. The death rate for 15 to 34-year-olds of influenza and pneumonia were 20 times higher in 1918 than in previous years (Taubenberger).
The Conversation says we are better off than they were in 1918 in five ways.
• Communication–A hundred years of innovation in communication has dramatically changed our ability to quickly exchange vital data.
• Better social distancing–One of the reasons the influenza pandemic thrived in 1918 was because of overcrowded living conditions.
• Nutrition–In 1918. . .poor and malnourished were much more likely to succumb to flu than the more affluent.
• Disease demographics–During the 1918 pandemic, pregnant women were at particularly high risk. . . This is not the case with COVID-19.
• Better medical science–Today’s medical technologies are infinitely more advanced than they were a century ago.
Biospace compares 1918 with 2020, but ends with hope.
The COVID-19 epidemic is without a doubt an enormous and unique challenge worldwide, and the battle is nowhere near being over. But there are signs that government policies in several countries, including Germany and South Korea, have been able to contain the virus, and news about several antiviral drug trials, such as Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, are expected in the next few weeks, should give people hope.
The site also notes that, as horrible as pandemics are, they eventually do end. The “American Flu” of 1918 was gone in three years. Let’s hope what Trump calls “China Flu” will be gone in a shorter period of time. If we act responsibly.