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Repetitive History

Author’s Note: Usually, I travel, visit museums and libraries, and interview people to research the topics upon which I write. However, because of COVID-19, my plans to spend a month in the UK this summer for research purposes have been postponed. The characters of my current manuscript encountered the 1918 flu pandemic. In lieu of travel, I turned to the internet and found some interesting reading, which I thought I’d share.



The Spanish flu pandemic started in January of 1918 and plagued the globe beyond the end of World War I. Throughout the following three years, it infected approximately twenty-five percent of the world’s then population (500 million people).

Unofficially, military pathologists have since determined that smaller outbreaks of the same respiratory disease were reported in late 1916, and again in the spring of 1917. All three outbreaks spread easily amongst the troops stationed in Europe because of overcrowded camps and hospitals, malnourishment, combat stress, chemical attacks, and mobility.

The virus was christened the Spanish flu, not because it began in Spain, but because it was first reported in Spanish news articles. Any reports by Germany, France, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth Nations were censored in order to maintain troop morale. Government denial also resulted in respective populations being poorly prepared to stop the spread.

The deadliest wave of the virus struck in October 1918 and resulted in the highest fatality rate. Celebrating the end of World War 1 in November 1918, relieved European citizens and exhausted troops took to the streets to celebrate, unwittingly spreading the disease through close contact. As troops stationed in Europe then made their way to the coast, they carried the virus with them. Already battle weary, with hunger nipping at their heels, soldiers boarded ships for home giving little thought to the contagion they might carry.

As ships cruised from France to Britain, the most vulnerable of the troops began to show signs of illness. At the southern ports, most of the men likely disembarked without any sign of illness, but by the time the ships arrived in northern ports, such as Newcastle and Glasgow, many men had already reported to sickbay. On shore, the flu spread rapidly from city to countryside by soldiers returning to their homes. 

Ships travelling to North America, Australia, India and other Commonwealth countries became viral incubators, spreading the illness world-wide, infecting each port where home-comers disembarked. Estimated death counts ranged from seventeen to one-hundred million people world-wide. Overwhelmed undertakers and grave diggers could not keep up. In some countries, funerals were restricted to fifteen minutes.

The Spanish flu continued to plague the world throughout 1919, not waning until the end of 1920. During that time, health officials insisted that everyone wear a mask, and recommended that all surfaces be wiped with Lysol or bleach and hands be washed constantly with soap and water, that crowds be avoided, and that sleeves be used as a backstop for coughing. Barber shops moved their chairs outdoors, university classes were taught in sports stadiums, schools were closed, and city children were sent to live in the country. Australia imposed a national quarantine, insisting new arrivals be held in isolation prior to entering the country.

However, those measures were inadequate. Not wanting to be housebound during warm summer months, people resumed seasonal activities and socializing. Others scorned the need for protective measures, insisting that a woman would feel ugly wearing a mask, a mask would steam up eyeglasses, and a mask would not be practical during meals. One established department store announced that the best way to manage influenza was to take advantage of an upcoming sale! The virus flourished again, killing fifty percent of those infected between the ages of twenty and forty years.

During the Spanish flu pandemic (which has since been renamed the 1918 flu pandemic), many social and other industries collapsed. The healthcare industry thrived, as did the success of women in nursing; although, doctors were often blamed for lack of foresight and poor planning.

Does any of this sound familiar?

At the end of 2019 – one hundred years since the infamous 1918 Spanish flu – another infectious disease was on the move. Christened COVID-19, it began inland, far from the sea, far from war and ships shuttling battle-weary men home. Instead, trains, planes, and public events provided a means of transport. Instead of soldiers crammed into the belly of ships, cruise ships served a petri dishes, as they ferried passengers between exotic and faraway lands. Aircraft randomly sprinkled virus-carrying folk at airports, both international and domestic, releasing fingers of contagion to unfurl without check.

As telltale signs of a pandemic crept into global awareness, a panic grew deep in the bones of the world. Health officials called for calm and kindness. They advised front-line workers to wear masks and shields, and called for more personal protective equipment, hoping to avoid shortages and death. Citizens were advised to wipe all surfaces with disinfectants, like Lysol or bleach, to cough into their sleeves, to wash their hands with soap and water, to stand two meters apart, to not gather in groups, and to go home and stay there until further notice.

Some folks responded better than others. Some countries responded faster than others. Many world leaders closed the borders of their countries the better to protect citizens. Most worked cooperatively to ensure that necessary medical supplies, food and basic necessities where manufactured and disseminated.

When the two pandemics are compared, the patterns of contagion and death by region are eerily similar. For example, New York City is no stranger to respiratory pandemics. As COVID-19 has taken a toll on its residents, so too did the 1918 flu.

The 1918 flu roamed the world for three years, ravaging it for almost two. In early 2020, health authorities advised that it would take many months or years to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Until scientific endeavours result in a vaccine that will ensure a resumption of a new world norm, we must be patient and look to our leaders for guidance. Forget the silliness of vanity, foggy eyewear and challenging meals; wear a mask in public. Appreciate that the shopping malls are closed for good reason. Staying home for a few more months seems less daunting than living in fear for three years.

Let us all embrace the latest motto of the World Health Organization: ONE WORLD: TOGETHER, AT HOME.

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