The Spanish Flu (1918-1919)
In the current Pandemic, Health has become our focus. At the same time, we use very different therapies to stop the Coronavirus; for some, Art also has a word to say in the current circumstances. Health is now, our major concern. In this article, we revive memories of our collective past, which has been recorded in the historical archives of the human mind.
So, I would like to trace some episodes in History about the Health of populations and understand if there are differences in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.
But has it really changed so much over time? Or have we forgotten – we, Humanity – that we are vulnerable to diseases, and not only to wars?
Who thought, that today we would have to fight to survive a virus?
Why is Covid-19 so closely linked to Spanish Influenza?
Much has been said, and speculated, about the similarities between the Spanish Flu (also known as pneumonic flu or “Influenza”) of 1918-1919 and the Covid-19 Pandemic. In both cases, there is a profound economic and social impact on communities.
In fact, the flu that would kill (as we know today) around 100 million people during 1918 and 1918 was eclipsed from the annals of History in a world devastated by the First World War. This is an astronomical figure, but at the time, many of the deaths were attributed to the war. In reality, as it later emerged, this was not the case; many deaths were caused by the influence, directly or indirectly.
The true proportion of certain global events, however, can only be understood in the light of scientific and technological developments: this is what happened in this case.
The identification of the virus with the H1N1 subtype of Influenza A (responsible for the Spanish flu) was only achieved in the 1930s, which is why no vaccine was developed until the end of the Pandemic in 1919. Like Covid-19 disease, there was no vaccine available at the time during its most critical period.
On the other hand, and just like today, there were other epidemics that spread in parallel to the “Influenza”, above all other seasonal outbreaks of influenza, which made the counting of the dead and those infected by the former difficult to ascertain.
The same conclusions have been observed with the Covid-19 Pandemic. Also in this case, the scientific and medical community has realised that this is a new phenomenon: there is no immunisation of the population, because we are facing a new disease circulating among humans.
Rules of 100 years ago about hygiene and distancing: are they so different from today’s world?
In reviewing some historical aspects of the Influenza, I was surprised at how similar the disease control rules that applied at the beginning of the 20th century were to today’s Covid-19 rules. That is why I think it is so important to know the outlines of History because we can see more clearly that this “new modernity” is only the result of events in the past. Sometimes, these two realities are much closer together than we might think at first glance.
It should be noted, that the First World War helped the rapid spread of pneumonic flu, which proved highly contagious. Although today we do not live in a war on a planetary scale, there is another very important phenomenon of the spread of diseases: globalisation. 100 years after the 1918 Pandemic, we are once again having to live with a new, widespread disease. This time, as a result of the mobility of human beings across the planet, in an increasingly interconnected world.
What measures were taken in 1918 to control pneumonic flu?
Here is a list of them, which will surprise us all by their similarity to those applied in various countries in the world today:
Covering the mouth with a handkerchief when sneezing;
Generalised use of masks lined with several layers of gauze;
Restriction in the use of public transport;
Prohibition of gatherings/ crowds and demonstrations;
Closing of schools and religious temples;
Creation of isolation wards for the infected in hospitals and implementation of sanitary fences in cities.
It is interesting to note, that in 1918, without the medical and scientific knowledge of today, there were already recurrent practices of prophylaxis. This, even without knowing which pathogenic agent was causing the diseases.
And this is what I wanted to get at: there is in fact a natural instinct in human beings that leads them to adopt certain behaviours – without knowing that it is these attitudes that make survival possible. Just to give an example: it was during this period that the use of masks became widespread in Japan,without yet knowing the full benefits of this practice to contain pneumonic flu. I think that this example is food for thought.
Art – a representation of what happens in the world to the human being?
Man acts by instinct. And it was through instinct that human beings tried to survive the greatest deprivations, especially diseases. That’s what happened in relation to the Spanish flu, and the same is happening now, in relation to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
As you may have noticed, I decided to dedicate a space on my blog, to Health and the Arts. Thus, men of art have also been born, survived and died in the face of the great upheavals that have beset humanity.
In 1918, the death of reputed artists was recorded as a result of the “Influenza”. For those who survived, the Spanish flu had a traumatic effect on the populations, which was fought through the expression of art, in its multiple manifestations. Art that we can still appreciate today.
Art is a balm for our mental health. Through Art, we discover that we are not alone in the world, experiencing problems in isolation. There are more human beings facing almost always the same challenges, almost always the same doubts. Art is thus a way to connect us and a therapy. Worth mentioning is the novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus.
Camus tried to demonstrate how a Pandemic can test the nature of the human being. Although the book was published several decades after the Spanish Flu, in 1947, the truth is that society still felt the effects of this disease. And the writer was sensitive to this feeling, translating it into art.
Born in 1913, Camus was very young when the pneumonic flu broke out. What becomes visible in his novel is that the world kept its wounds and sorrows for several decades in relation to the consequences of the Pandemic of 1918. These wounds have come to be told through the Power of Words.