Remembering the 1918 Pandemic

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“September 1918, Camp Devens, Massachusetts, the man on the autopsy table has turned blue. Dr. William H Welch nods to proceed. His colleague reached for the bone saw and began to open the rib cage. The man’s lungs are heavy. Welch and his colleagues leaned in as it opens. The lungs are so filled with fluids that they travelled up the trachea. The man had drowned in his own body just like the others. Welch needs air. He opened the door and stumbles around men lying on the floor. There are no longer enough beds in the hospital. Six thousand men, cramped in a facility meant for twelve hundred, and they’re turning blue.”

That would be the opening line to one of the many stories of the 1918 Pandemic. It may be difficult for many to remember, but the pandemic that we are going through now is not the 1st pandemic in modern history. It is also not the worst, yet. As bad as COVID-19 may seem, the one that our great grandparents faced was far more deadly and severe. The Spanish flu, as it was dubbed by the newspapers, at the time killed an estimate of a hundred million people. It wiped out an entire language, was the one of the early dominos in the fall of the imperial age and altered a culture. Yet, barely handfuls of us remember it today.

Perhaps because there is no one alive who could remember the pandemic. Even our elders who we look to for wisdom, were either too young or weren’t even born when it happened (maybe except Kane Tanaka, the oldest person in the world who was 17 at the time). Also the timing of its emergence at the end of WWI turned this monumental event into a footnote of the great war as every single decision that governments took to combat this pandemic revolved around winning the war. Even the name ‘Spanish flu’ came about because of the war. Since Spain did not partake in WWI, the news over there was not subjected to wartime censorship, thus making it as though the flu came from Spain who was the first to report about it on the news.

The Spanish flu came in three waves. The first wave was wide spread and it did kill many people, but more people survived it than those who died from it. It was the short but deadly second wave that was responsible for killing millions of people. Again like all things back then, no one really knew what caused the flu to mutate into a form that could kill someone almost instantly after they showed the symptoms. But one theory suggested that it was the use of ‘mustard gas’ in the frontlines in Europe, which mutated with the strands of flu cell in the infected soldiers, transformed the flu from its mild form to the deadly form. But as the world reached the year 1920, two years after it first began the flu simply lost its momentum and died off naturally.

By the end of the pandemic, it was estimated over 50 million people died from the ‘Spanish Flu’ and recent studies showed that the actual numbers are closer to a 100 million. In truth we could never really know because the virus was so extensive, perhaps even the hidden tribes within the most secluded place could have been killed by the flu. The world was not as connected back then as it is now and therefore we will never know. What we do know is that the world that recovered from it was a new world. Many of the historical events that came after 1920, had its seeds planted during the 1920 pandemic.

For example in the US, the failures of doctors to successfully treat patients gave rise to the importance of nurses. As there were not enough doctors to take care of each patient, nurses whose care goes beyond the method of medicine were the ones patients relied on the most. After the pandemic, the number of women joining college to be trained as nurses increased drastically, opening the door to more women being enrolled in higher learning in the coming years.

It also led to the end of imperialism. As many of the independent movements in colonies like India, Egypt and many more started in college, educated locals travelled around their countries bringing medical consultation, medicine and food to help them fight off the virus. It opened their eyes to the capabilities of local young leaders and the neglect that the colonizers had towards them in terms of medical, food and financial aid during the pandemic. These young educated people later became the backbone of the independence movements of their respective countries walking standing side by side with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi who was infected by the flu but survived it.

The people of today are currently facing our own challenges against the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the severity of the COVID-19 is less compared to the Spanish flu, nearly 180 million people have been infected around the world and 3.9 million people have died from it. Some people believed that this is due to COVID-19 being not as deadly as the Spanish Flu, but a much more popular theory suggested that 102 years of technological advancements especially in the field of medicine could be the difference between the statistical numbers of 1918 and 2020.

Yet for all of the advances and progress between those 102 years, we can see many similarities in the mistakes then and now. When the Spanish Flu first started, nobody paid attention to the warning signs that could probably mitigate the spread of the virus. Even when doctors and scientist raised the alarm of a critical pandemic, generals, politicians and companies decided to carry on with they were doing as though there were facing a common cold. The connection between empires, their colonies and allies made troop movement from every part of the globe to converge on the battlefield, making the latter the ideal place for the spread of the virus.

Not to mention the wartime censorships that are practiced in many countries today prevented any swift action that could have been taken to stop the spread of the virus in the early stages. Many people ignored the practice of wearing masks and once it actually caught on there were not enough supply of it to go around. Thus, they had to use a makeshift masks made out of any fabric that they could afford to get their hands on.

Governments around the world, who failed to prepare countermeasures in the event of a pandemic, could not figure out how to keep their economies afloat and many businesses around the world saw a decline in revenue and closed soon after. This paved the way to an economic collapse starting in the US and soon around the world in 1929 known to us today as ‘The Great Depression’ and if we are not careful this time, in 2029 another great depression could happen.

Yet, the worst mistake is the one we have yet to make, but seem bound to. After the Spanish Flu in 1920, it was never talked of again. Except for the Japanese who integrated wearing masks if one is sick as part of their culture, everyone else went on their own lives. Until today scientist could never understand how the memories of the Spanish Flu went away as fast as it came, it was as if the whole world just chose to forget about it.

A cataclysmic event that killed almost 100 million people was forgotten with a snap of the finger. This is evident today with our own society in Malaysia. At least 84,000 people died from the Spanish Flu and it might have been more if there was proper data sharing within the different states at the time. When the COVID-19 emerged, we had no contingent plans medically and economically to handle such a pandemic. That is because memories and knowledge of previous pandemics were not learnt and discussed publically.

We cannot afford to the same thing. The people of the world cannot forget this pandemic the way the previous ones were forgotten. We must do all we can to ensure that a hundred years from now, they know what COVID-19 is. Not only as a history lesson but so they can also prepare for their own pandemic that could be just around the corner if not already there. We made the same mistakes in 2020 as those who came before us did in 1920 because we did not learn from our own history. Those who do not learn from their own history are bound to repeat it.

Photo: The Queenslander, 22 Feb 1919

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