Spanish Flu: The Pre-Coronavirus Pandemic That Killed Millions In 1918

By | February 29, 2020

Long before the coronavirus, the Spanish flu was one of the first recorded pandemics, infecting at least 27% of the Earth's population at the time and killing 35% of them. Reaching as far as the Arctic, this pandemic heralded the beginning of a more connected, albeit frightening, world whose complications we're still dealing with today.

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Spanish Flu Killed More Adults Than Any Other Flu

Deaths from the flu tend to be limited to those who already have an immature or weakened immune system—basically, the very young or the very old. The Spanish flu, like today's coronavirus, was different. It wiped out just as many (if not more) young adults as infants and seniors, resulting in a higher mortality rate than had been seen in previous influenza outbreaks.

It wasn't just that the flu was super intense, although it definitely was. What really pushed this outbreak into pandemic territory was its ease of transmission and the poor hygiene and overcrowding of the medical camps ironically set up to treat it. Much like the coronavirus, the growing convenience of international travel helped it spread far beyond the distance that it normally would.

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Why Was It Called The Spanish Flu?

Although the H1N1 virus (which you might recognize by its rebranding as the "swine flu" in 2009) became known as the Spanish flu, its only relationship to Spain was political. In reality, "patient zero" is now known to be a Kansas Army cook named Albert Gitchell, who was diagnosed on March 4, 1918. From there, it spread throughout the world thanks to movements of soldiers fighting in World War I. However, wartime censors quelled reports of the flu in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, encouraging the media to blame the illness on Spain in retribution for the country's neutrality regarding the war. In his book on the pandemic, Albert Marrin explains the media blackout of the era and its relation to the war as an attempt to maintain morale in Allied countries:

For propagandists, whatever promoted the Allied cause was true, whether factual or not. What counted was the noble end—victory—not the sordid means of achieving it. 'Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms,' declared a CPI official. 'There is nothing in experience to tell us that one is always preferable to the other ... There are lifeless truths and vital lies ... The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.