Spanish Flu and COVID-19

Oregon newspaper 1918- University of Oregon.

It has been more than half a year since the coronavirus pandemic has swept the planet. It has shook the world to it’s core after we started receiving images and videos coming from Italy where pandemic has hit the hardest back in March.

People had to get used to wearing a mask, vodka-smelling antiseptics and social distancing. I remember first days coming out on the street wearing a mask on a scorching, hot day. Trouble breathing and sense of doom cemented on the faces of people passing by. It was rather strange sensation, for everyone, seeing the world change so drastically outside your door, just as it did on the screen of your computer.

Time went by and the virus is still with us. Many countries are preparing for next waves of infected and some, even place new quarantines on the populace.

Let’s explore how people reacted to Spanish Flu or H1N1, that has murdered between 50 to 100 million people, when it hit the world hundred years ago.

The perfect conditions.

It is a year 1917 and WW1 is raging across Europe. On April 6th, United States joins the war. Although much of the US populace was against intervention in European matters, the government led by Woodrow Wilson decides to send and expand it’s fighting force.

In June 1917 – to increase the number of fighting men, a draft is established. The army creates 32 training centers, each housing 25,000 to 55,000 men.

That was perfect condition for the virus to spread. As soon as March 1918 over 100 servicemen at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas come down with the flu. A week later, that number has grown by 5 times.

Soon sporadic cases start to appear in different parts of the world as well.

In May 1918, US starts sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers beginning the first H1N1 infection wave in Europe. Only neutral Spain is openly speaking about the pandemic, while the rest of fighting countries censor the news.

Austrian National Library
The second wave.

The second wave hit the streets in September of 1918, killing more than before.

In Philadelphia, 200,000 people gather for a Liberty Bonds parade, and days later, 635 new cases of the flu are reported. The city orders schools, churches, and theaters closed. Similar tactics to prevent the spread of the virus will be used in our times.

195,000 people die in the US during single month of October. There is also a shortage of nurses to take care of the sick since many were sent to help the soldiers in the battlefield.

Mandatory to wear a mask in Chicago. Shipbuilding business in New York is struggling without workers.

Interior of a hospital ward at the Base Hospital, Camp Jackson, South Carolina, during the influenza epidemic (1918). Original image from National Museum of Health and Medicine
End of the war.

Great time to celebrate but not everything is festive. Soldiers that came back home brought back the virus together with them. The president Woodrow Wilson comes down with the flu himself but ultimately survives.

The End

By August 1919, the pandemic has almost gone completely instinct due to carriers death or immunity of the rest.

forgotten lessons

George A. Soper prepared a warning text for the respected scientific publication “Science” about possible recurrence of similar global epidemics in the future. The magazine published this material in the March 1919 issue as an editorial titled “Lessons from the Pandemic.”

There are three main obstacles in the way of epidemic prevention.

First, the indifference of society. People are not aware of the risks they are taking. The huge variation in the severity of respiratory illness after infection confuses people and hides the danger. This infection can range from the common cold to pneumonia. It begins as upper respiratory tract catarrh or rhinitis, then can suddenly develop into pharyngitis, tonsillitis, laryngitis, bronchitis, or pneumonia. The severity increases as the infection progresses to the lungs. Sometimes the infection seems to start in the chest, sometimes in the throat, sometimes in the head. It can stop where it started, or go through several phases. This is the story of the common cold: it tends to be more unpleasant than dangerous. Most people recover without much treatment, or any major intervention.

The second factor that stands in the way of prevention is the peculiarities of the human body itself … Discharge from the nose and throat gets into the air and contaminates hands, food, clothing and, in fact, … the entire environment of an infected person. This happens unconsciously, unnoticed, nobody suspects anything … Thus, we get a situation where we have to control those people who are already infected, but those who can transmit the disease can do little to protect themselves. At the same time, the “preventive burden” is unlikely to be easy for a person: in our nature it is not laid down to enclose ourselves in rigid isolation for a simple cold, assuming in advance that there is a chance that it will turn out to be a more dangerous infection.

Third, the high contagiousness of respiratory infections exacerbates the difficulty of controlling them. The incubation period varies considerably … and the patient can become contagious even before he even realizes that he is getting sick.


We did not learn the lessons of WW1 and received WW2. We did not learn the lessons of H1N1 and received COVID-19. Let’s hope that COVID-19 will not be as deadly of a lesson.

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