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Infection & Revolution: What Can We Learn from the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’?

From economic aftershocks to social unrest, racial discrimination and healthcare inequality, Otto English predicts a pandemic will transform this century just as it did the last

Children at the Evian ARC hospital, Paris 1918

Infection & RevolutionWhat Can We Learn from the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’?

From economic aftershocks to social unrest, racial discrimination and healthcare inequality, Otto English predicts a pandemic will transform this century just as it did the last

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An epidemic arrives in the midst of global political upheaval. Opportunities are missed and the scale of the crisis is misunderstood. As the virus spreads, some countries handle it better than others. Social distancing measures are enforced and then ignored. Racial tension spills over into violence and fortunes both economic and political are lost and made.

Sound familiar? As we navigate the painful path of COVID-19, what can we learn from the pandemic of 1918-1920 and its aftermath about what happens next?

The Second Wave

In August 1918, as the Great War sped towards its bloody denouement, a deadly virus cut through the allied armies on the Western Front. This was the second wave of the erroneously named “Spanish Flu” which had come and gone, almost imperceptibly, during the early spring of that same year.

This time, it took no prisoners. Since April, the H1N1 virus had mutated into something far more noxious and, in the trenches of Europe, where exhausted troops had weakened immune systems and poor sanitation, it found its perfect breeding ground. Soon it was felling soldiers with all the murderous ferocity of a machine gun. 

The disease appeared so abruptly and with such savagery that, in the superstitious atmosphere of the trenches, rumours ran rife that this was a secret German chemical weapon, hatched up by Prussian boffins in their Berlin labs. 

As the rate of infection escalated, the Allied High Command realised that something had to be done and so took the fateful decision to remove the very sickest men from the frontline on troop trains. That choice undoubtedly exacerbated the spread of the disease and within weeks the virus was rampaging through western Europe – even across the enemy lines. 

 Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C. (1918)

This spelled disaster for the German Imperial Army and the vast number of additional casualties it suffered as a consequence undoubtedly hastened the end of the war. By early autumn, the game was up and on 11 November 1918 Armistice was declared. 

As the disease engulfed the world throughout 1918, many countries were slow to respond or appreciate the scale of the crisis. Neutral nations fared little better than the belligerents but they did at least acknowledge what was going on and that is why Spain, which was quick to report the scale of the emergency, was erroneously blamed for something that was not of its making. 

Those places that did act more swiftly and aggressively recovered far more quickly than those that didn’t, both economically and in terms of containment.

In America, a German-born businessman called Frederick Trump contracted the virus and died.

In many countries, social distancing and other measures familiar to us in 2020 were introduced. Britain’s pubs, theatres, schools and churches were closed. Weddings and funerals were cancelled. The coffins stacked up. People were advised to stay at home and told to wear gauze masks if they ventured out. In the US, it was eventually made a legal requirement to do so.

In the absence of social media memes, an American rhyme was penned to hammer the message home: “Obey the laws and wear the gauze, protect your jaws from septic paws.”

Some decided that they would rather take their chances with the disease than have to put up with the indignity of face coverings. In San Francisco in October 1918, libertarians set up an ‘anti-mask league’ and began protesting against the measures designed to save their lives and stop the spread. 

With millions infected, the disease impacted everything. 

Economic Aftershocks and Social Unrest

Western economies already hit by the devastating effect of war started to wobble. In the US, many industries – including mining, hospitality and entertainment – simply ground to a halt. There was some reported wage growth but this was significantly outweighed by the huge economic and social cost of a pandemic that was wreaking death across the world. 

Nobody was immune. In Britain, the Prime Minister David Lloyd-George fell victim to the illness during a trip to Manchester and was hospitalised. The severity of his condition, which almost cost him his life, was hushed up by a sympathetic press.

In America, a German-born businessman called Frederick Trump contracted the virus and died. The hefty $4,000 life insurance policy that subsequently paid out was used to burnish a family fortune that would one day be passed on to his grandson Donald.

Mortality was greatest among the poor. Black and ethnic minority communities in the US suffered significantly higher death rates than their white co-patriots. 

In San Francisco in October 1918, libertarians set up an ‘anti-mask league’ and began protesting against the measures

Since 1900, many black Americans had moved from the South to escape the racist Jim Crow laws, but cities like New York remained unashamedly segregated and institutionally racist. Even before the pandemic hit, African Americans were beset by seemingly insurmountable barriers of opportunity, healthcare and education. The almost complete lack of public health resources available meant that those who got sick were far more likely to die. 

American Red Cross canteen workers, Charlotte, North Carolina (1918)

Even then, discrimination persisted. In Baltimore, white sanitation workers refused to dig graves for black victims of the pandemic. 350,000 African American GIs had fought in the US expeditionary force in World War One but they returned to a nation that had erased their contribution from the newspapers, textbooks and public displays of gratitude. Black ex-servicemen were simply expected to get back in line and know their place. But, as their community disproportionately suffered, many Black GIs had had enough and began to raise voices of discontent.   

As the third wave passed in the early summer of July 1919, 17-year-old Eugene Williams decided to go for a swim on Lake Michigan with his friends. Paddling a small raft, he inadvertently drifted into the ‘whites only’ area whereupon a white man on the shore began throwing rocks at him. The boy was either hit or panicked and slipped into the water and drowned. 

As onlookers on the neighbouring shore attempted to get a policeman to arrest the culprit, matters escalated. One of those remonstrating with the officer was arrested for a breach of the peace and locked up instead, while the white man walked free. Justifiable rage spread through the black community and soon people were taking to the streets. 

On the first day of demonstrations, 27 protestors were violently beaten up, seven stabbed and four shot. In the ensuing weeks of violence, hundreds more were attacked and killed – the vast majority of the victims black men.

This was just one of many incidents in that notorious frenzied Red Summer of 1919 – three months that were to see at least 43 African Americans lynched and as many as a thousand people killed.

It was only when the violence spread to Washington DC that President Woodrow Wilson, himself recovering from the virus, sought to “restore order”.

Race and Healthcare Inequalities

The disgrace of American apartheid was not a new phenomenon of course and the riots were not directly informed by the pandemic. But the inequalities in healthcare and sanitation that had been laid bare by the virus, and the enormous death toll suffered by the black American community as a result, undoubtedly played their part in the demonstrations and retaliatory white violence of 1919. Those events were to directly inform the Civil Rights Movement. 

But it wasn’t only in the US that the virus ignited social change.

In India, where British rulers had consistently failed to put basic public healthcare or proper sanitation in place, at least 15 million people died. As the deaths mounted, the Lieutenant Governor ignored the body-count and instead boasted in his official correspondence that he had “managed to get two hundred couple of snipe so far this season”. 

India had lost some 75,000 sons in the Great War and was now suffering the worst excesses of the pandemic. When the heavy-handed Rowlatt Act was imposed, to try to stem the growing tide of dissent, it precipitated mass political upheaval that ended in the bloody massacre at Amritsar on 13 April 1919 – an event that undoubtedly changed the course of Indian history.

By the spring of 1920, the worst ravages of the pandemic had passed. It had killed more than twice as many people as the Great War but, as it had disproportionately claimed the lives of the poor and dispossessed, it was swiftly forgotten.

Unlike the struggles of war and revolution, there was no glamour in the virus. The media wasn’t interested, no poetry was written, no films were made, no cello concertos composed, and no stained glass windows put in memorial chapels.

The fog of the end of World War One and the conflation of events meant that many who had fallen to disease were counted as victims of the war and the lines between the two events were muddied.

But remembered or not, once it was over, its after-effects resonated on down the century.

The hedonistic ‘Roaring Twenties’ epitomised by a devil-may-care, live-for-the-moment ethos (for those who could afford it) was certainly a reaction to the cavalcade of death that had come in the decade before both of war and pandemic. 

The almost unimaginable loss of life of both events traumatised a generation and led to a growing clamour for better public healthcare and eventually the creation of universal systems.

Masks required in American Public Transport (1918)

But perhaps the most lasting legacy of the virus was the fires it lit.

In India, the British had failed to protect the population and millions had died. Their moral authority and the supposed justification for their presence in the country had been lost. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement had been awoken. Across the world, much of the old order was crumbling to dust and a new fatalism had taken hold.

Shaping the Century

Our immediate future is unwritten, but one thing is certain: these months will shape the coming decade – if not the century.

COVID-19 has taken lives, shaken certainties, wrecked economies and rendered millions of people unemployed. All of that will resonate for years to come. 

More than that, the virus has exposed a crisis in care and the injustice of struggling healthcare systems that have seen a disproportionate number of deaths in black and ethnic minority communities. In Britain, Brazil and the US, ham-fisted populist leaders have had the curtain whipped back and their ineptitude revealed. The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests will have long-term consequences. The felling of statues, the challenging of orthodoxies and the demands for equality and change feel like nothing short of a revolution. 

Unlike the ‘Spanish Flu’, COVID-19 won’t be forgotten any time soon. There is no Great War to overshadow it. This is a collective, shared tragedy and none of us have been left untouched. It has demonstrated that our safety, security and health can never be taken for granted and that the empty promises of populist popinjays mean nothing when a pandemic is filling up the graveyards.

Unfortunately, if the 20th Century taught us anything, it is that in the soup of fear and uncertainty there will always be malignant forces seeking to take advantage and promote their own agenda. As we move into the light, we must endeavour to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

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