When History Repeats Itself

When History Repeats Itself
The Spanish Flu was tragically given an erroneous name. Spain wasn't the origin of the devastating influenza strain, but Spanish newspapers acted as the first messengers when the pandemic competed with the tragic events of WW1. Because of military censorship, countries involved in WW1 prohibited the release of vital information, which may have contributed to catapulting the flu to epic proportions. The flu crippled the entire world, ravaging bodies from 1918 to 1920 and decades to come. No reliable data can determine the origin, yet some truths regarding this catastrophic pandemic remain relevant today.

In Canada, the H1N1 influenza A, or Spanish Flu, strain took the lives of 55,000 people who competed for grave plots with the 60,000 soldiers who fell in WW1. This international pandemic also took 675,000 US citizens to their grave. In New York alone, 19,000 people died from complications associated with this lethal strain. In total, this flu claimed 40 - 50 million bodies. Some experts even suggest a number as high as 100 million. As records indicate, 500 million people became infected during four ferocious waves, making the Spanish Flu one of (if not the most) deadliest pandemic in human history.

Humans have been fighting pandemics throughout history. As far back as 1200 BC, massive swaths of infectious diseases killed humanity without discrimination. From Babylonian times to Ancient Greece, to Roman Emperors, and from Asia to Europe to the Americas, people have battled a list of deadly, communicable diseases. Top graduates are typhus, early influenza strains, smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, diphtheria, dengue, and cholera. The bubonic plague (fleas), the most prolific disease on the touring schedule, has reappeared throughout the centuries. Although modern medicine has done much to eradicate most of these diseases, they resurge despite vaccination and other preventative measures.

Influenza is a reappearing force that mutates, then circles the planet, infects, and decimates the vulnerable. The Spanish Flu pandemic shares many similarities with COVID. The Spanish Flu had such success because various authorities failed in installing preventative measures. But hindsight is always 20/20, and the truth sets a very discernible pattern. It’s not surprising that people, even back then, didn’t adhere to the suggested guidelines. Those who weren’t infected complained about the restrictions. Outrage was the vernacular of the times, and those individuals prone to non-compliance ultimately assisted in spreading the virus. What’s interesting is that this strain mutated and killed healthy middle-aged people by the millions.

When the first wave appeared, it resembled the typical flu. The first casualty is traceable to Camp Funston, a military base in Kansas, in March of 1918. The second onslaught quickly turned deadly in early autumn.

There was a rule of thumb:

When your eyes begin to water,
And your nose turns blue,
If your lips begin to quiver,
Then, you’ve got the Spanish Flu.

While it's interesting to research the archives, coming face to face with black and white images of Canadians, Americans, Europeans hidden behind cloth masks drives home the point. Many balked at the idea of wearing masks and debated the efficacy of their use and resented travel restrictions and the banning of social gatherings. Today’s studies suggest that these measures would have reduced the death rate by 50% if applied early in the fight. What remains an undisputed fact: first responders, like nurses, doctors, health care administrators, volunteers, and the vulnerable bear the brunt of the burden.

Because the Spanish Flu occurred during tumultuous times and sanctioned military censorship, silence aided in spreading this deadly flu, and misinformation only contributed to the problem. Authorities feared a mass panic, and fabrication of facts took its toll. Unsubstantiated facts, which seem silly now, spread as quickly as the flu. Such were: that the noxious fumes emanating from the graves in Flanders Field were responsible, or that the Germans poisoned Aspirins and/or released poisonous gas from U-boats, yet sound similar to the dialog concerning the 2020 COVID pandemic affecting the word today.

And while many of the known facts about the Spanish Flu contradict coronavirus, the fallout remains the same. People whom we love suffer and die because of it. Like with COVID, there was no cure, no vaccine. However, we now have life-saving equipment that may help to combat this invisible enemy some of the time. What remains a fact is: viruses breed quickly without preventative measures and through people who won’t adhere to expert advice.

The flu of 1918 arrived in Canada from port cities like Montreal, Quebec City, and Halifax by ship, and then boarded the train to spread across the country. Canadian war efforts were, unfortunately, instrumental in the transmission. Troops were sent by train from east to west, decimating many communities and families when the virus alighted alongside the soldiers. In August of 1918, when the second wave arrived, it sparked from Brest, France, carried there by leagues of North American troops. Within days, it infected thousands, from Boston to Sierra Leone, and within weeks a wildfire of infections clamped down across the populous from Spain, Portugal, India, Scandinavia, Alaska, decimating the Inuit population and gripping Native American communities with deadly consequences.

During the 19th century, Maritime quarantine was an effective preventative, which unfortunately wasn’t implemented during the WW1 phase of the flu. Once they did, it was already too late. Municipal and provincial authorities tried to ban public gatherings and isolated the sick, sadly those sanctions were no longer sufficient. The flu had spread too far. Economies were paralyzed, but research suggests those communities who instituted measures like lock-downs saw no greater economic losses than those that didn’t. In 1919, forced by universal criticism for failing to provide guidance and the tools to combat this devastating illness, the Canadian government introduced the Department of Health to prevent this catastrophe from happening again.

So, masks, misinformation, and social distancing are not new concepts, and it’s interesting how prevalent misinformation has become a traded currency. You can bank on it. Handwashing (see Dr. Semmelweis 1847) was a relatively new experiment in 1918, and some fads apparently take a long time to catch on.

Yet, here we are. Perhaps it’s up to individuals to stifle this vicious killer.

A list of remedies used by desperate people during the pandemic includes garlic necklaces, turpentine baths, camphor treatments, alcohol tonics (this is during prohibition), sliced onions spread around the house, the color red, bloodletting, laxatives, quinine, and inhaling fumes. Staying home seems suddenly much more reasonable.

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