“The Spanish Flu” is a 2020 Hourly History book, a series of books that contain the essential information about a subject that can be read in about an hour. This book tells about the unusual conditions of 1918, the beginning of the flu that lasted until 1920 in three outbreaks, each outbreak being slightly different because the virus mutated every year, what is the Spanish flu, that the second wave was the worst plague, the third almost as bad, and about the lasting legacy of the flu. In many ways it was similar to the present Covid-19 pandemic, although a significant difference was that in 1918-1920, neither the medical nor lay people throughout the world knew much about viruses. Strange advice was given to people at that time, such as congregate in houses of worship and pray for the cessation of the flu, the offering of ineffective medicines such as the overuse of aspirins, and the refusal to use black nurses.
It was not until the 1930s that scientists definitively discovered that influenza is a virus and not a bacterium. Bacteria are living organisms with all the components needed to survive. Viruses are not considered living because they need a host cell to survive long term, for energy, and to reproduce. The first vaccines to treat the “common flu,” an illness that also changes every year because viruses mutate, was in the 1940s. We still today do not know why the flu is so dangerous.
There were many plagues in the past. In the fourteenth century, for example, the Black plague killed 200 million people worldwide. In the 1770s a plague killed 100,000; in 1855-1860 more than a million people were killed, so too in 1889-1890, more than a million died. The flu in the 1950s killed a million people, as it did also in 1968. In 2009, the Swine flu affected 500,000 people. Influenza continues to impact the world. Every year, thousands die from it.
Between, January 1918 and December 1920 more people were killed by the Spanish flu than all the people who died during World War I soldiers and civilians, 50 million, about a tenth of the world population of 500 million at that time. The flu struck just prior to the end of World War I (1914-1918) when conditions in the US and world-wide were terrible: weak, hungry, overworked people living in overcrowded conditions. There were lots of movement of people around the world, such as soldiers moving from country to country. There was no concept of mitigation and isolation.
During the plague, cities shut down. Businesses failed. Inflation rocketed. Yet the plague received little mention in the press and it was not studied by historians and other scholars. The governments of the world tried to downplay the outbreak to avoid panic. As a result, people led their normal lives and died. The only country that did not censor information about the plague was Spain, which was not involved in the war and did not fear panic.
We do not know where the plague started or exactly when it started and what started it. It may have begun in the US in Kansas, or China, or France. It is called the Spanish flu not because it is believed that it started in Spain, but simply because Spain was the only country that wrote about it.
Like Covid-19, the Spanish flu affected the upper respiratory system of the older population. But unlike Covid-19, the Spanish flu was especially deadly for people aged 20 through 40 and affected the very young. People caught the Spanish flu by being near a person who was infected. The virus could live outside the body for a period of time and be transmitted by touching the object. It had an incubation period; after being inflicted it took time before the symptoms appeared. It existed in cold weather and returned in August, which may happen to Covid-19.