Learning from the Spanish Flu

Posted 4/21/20

An old English proverb states that bad things come in threes. With the Spanish Flu, that was true.

The first wave hit in the spring of 1918 and was generally mild. The sick experienced flu-like …

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Learning from the Spanish Flu


An old English proverb states that bad things come in threes. With the Spanish Flu, that was true.

The first wave hit in the spring of 1918 and was generally mild. The sick experienced flu-like symptoms and usually recovered after a few days; the total number of deaths were low. The Spanish Flu was just like any other flu season. And so, as summer rolled around, people continued their normal activities.

In the late summer and fall of 1918, the virus returned with a vengeance.

The second time around, victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin discoloring and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate. This round accounted for more deaths in the U.S. than deaths from World War I. (If the upper-end estimates of 50 to 100 million worldwide deaths during the three waves are correct, it would make the virus deadlier than both World Wars combined.)

There wasn’t a vaccine for the virus in 1918, so primary precautions across the country included banning public gatherings and shutting down schools, churches and movie theaters. Mask-wearing was adopted and practiced widely across the states; cities mandated residents wear masks at all times. Social distancing worked in the areas it was enforced and helped keep the spread at bay. Cities like St. Louis, Missouri proved that enacting the rule proactively stunted the spread.

Businesses in 1918 were forced to close, with workers too ill to produce. Philadelphia was one of the cities that continued with events, like the Liberty Loan Parade, and lost more than 15,000 citizens before all was said and done. The difference between the city of Philadelphia and St. Louis’ distancing practices? St. Louis had just one-eighth of Philly’s death rate during the peak of the viral pandemic.

All this seems oddly familiar to what is going on now. There are minor differences though.

In 1918, much of the disease’s spread was due to the movement of troops. The overcrowded trenches and encampments of the First World War were the perfect place for it to breed and spread. When the troops split and moved, so did the disease, following them from base to base. As the crisis unfolded, medical facilities were overwhelmed. There was no #flattenthecurve movement then. World War I left parts of America with a shortage of medical staff. Of the available medical staff, many became ill themselves.

Today’s version of the pandemic moved by travelers, both business and pleasure, civilian and military alike. We’re trying to keep medical facilities from being overwhelmed, but a staggering percent of medical workers are still becoming infected with the illness.

The devil is in the details they say, and the fact that travelers had the virus and moved from location to location is what got us to where we are now. It spread, undetected, around the globe before the whistle was sounded.

As we enter into a full month of “lock down” and summer looms ahead, the decision to go back to business as usual would be a dangerous one. For as anyone with any schooling knows, history often repeats itself.

We need to find a delicate balance of sustaining our livelihoods while valuing our lives and the lives of those around us. Experts say this requires a major movement toward more testing, which has yet to pan out. While it isn’t at all feasible to think that the world could survive a full summer on lock down, it’s also not fathomable to think that on May 1 we can all go back to our everyday routines. (Unless we’re looking to wipe out a staggering percent of the population, just like in 1918.)

A careful relaxing of restrictions in areas and monitoring the result is the only way to get out of this without a catastrophic death toll. A slow and steady return to “normal” will be the only reality we should hope for or expect.

Amanda Reed is TRR’s production manager and online editor. She has complied resources for tracking COVID-19 at www.riverreporter.com/coronavirus, where you can also find the latest local updates.


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