With over 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 deaths alone in the United States, the 1918 influenza (or the Spanish Flu) pandemic took more lives than were lost during World War I and is considered one of the deadliest in history. It is estimated that 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. Biologically, the influenza virus of 1918 and the current coronavirus are very similar in that the influenza virus spread through respiratory droplets, sometimes causing the development of deadly pneumonia. They are also both considered novel viruses, meaning neither had ever been seen before in humans before their widespread outbreaks. In addition to these biological similarities, the Spanish Flu prompted the same atmosphere of fear and economic instability that is mirrored in the current pandemic. Although we are not in the midst of an active world war and now have 100 years’ worth of medical, scientific, and technological advances, we can learn many lessons from our response to the Spanish Flu and apply them to today’s COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the federal government’s preoccupation with World War I in 1918 and President Woodrow Wilson’s continuous denial of the severity of the virus as a part of his war propaganda, complacency replaced federal action and initiative. State and local governments were, for the most part, forced to fend for themselves, causing disarray and inconsistencies between state policies and exacerbating the number of cases in the U.S. cities that employed effective containment strategies such as individual quarantine and strict social distancing saw lower infection rates. Cities such as St. Louis who acted early and efficiently yielded half the mortality rate than cities like Philadelphia that continued to host large events. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s failure to mitigate the severity of the virus led to overwhelmed hospitals, a lack of adequate healthcare, and one of the highest mortality rates in the country.
The Spanish Flu also set the precedent of a “second wave” of disease. In San Francisco, once the number of cases reduced almost to zero, a decision was made to open up the city and host a parade to celebrate. This led to a resurgence of influenza two months later. Right now in the U.S., we are facing a similar lack of strong national leadership causing inconsistent responses among the states and confusion about the accuracy of scientific information.
The current pandemic also echoes the influenza of 1918 in both the media and national leadership, with the building of stigma and the evocation of scapegoats. Following the Spanish Flu, in the years between World War I and World War II, nationalism and xenophobia flourished in the U.S. and the notion of “America First” began to emerge. Similarly, we are currently seeing certain sectors of the media and the Trump administration placing the blame solely on China. Some have even renamed the virus the Chinese Virus or the Wuhan Virus, justifying this name by referring to the Spanish Flu. The Spanish Flu, however, did not originate in Spain. Rather, as a neutral power in World War I, Spanish media was the only source reporting on the virus leading to more focus on the pandemic in Spain.
Nationalism and xenophobia grew globally following the 1918 pandemic which contributed to the advent of World War II. The current scapegoating and propaganda have encouraged distrust and animosity between two major world powers–China and the U.S.–who should be working in tandem during this time of crisis. An example of this competition can be demonstrated through China’s willingness to distribute resources and its vaccine among other struggling countries whereas the U.S. refused to offer much needed aid overseas. As the most powerful democracy in the world, the U.S needs to utilize its multitude of resources to smartly partner with other global powers to prevent the mistakes that occurred following the influenza of 1918. We need to abandon the harmful notion of “America First” to ensure the prosperity of our citizens, prevent the exacerbation of foreign tensions, and find effective solutions through collective action on a global scale.
Despite the many unfortunate consequences of the 1918 influenza, it also had some positive effects on our country. The Spanish Flu brought out the best in many and the human race became more favorably predisposed to helping one another. Volunteer groups and individuals did all they could to distribute food and resources to those in need and lent a hand where the federal government fell short. Medical professionals learned a lot about how pandemics develop and public health grew as a necessary discipline.Whether it is donating to COVID-19 relief organizations, bringing groceries to your elderly neighbor, or simply wearing a mask, hopefully, the same inclinations will be repeated in the aftermath of COVID-19 and as a society, we will be more willing to demonstrate kindness and empathy and look out for one another.
Overall, the precedent set by the Spanish Flu is not fact. Our history does not have to determine our future. What we do know to be true is that without working in tandem with others in our community, our government, and the world, the coronavirus will continue to spread and grow as it has been continuing to do every day.
Josie Jun is a rising junior in high school from Los Angeles, California who is fascinated by American government, policy making, and global affairs. Through her article writing for NextGen Politics, Josie hopes to educate others and share her passion for politics. In her free time, Josie loves to play volleyball, hang out with friends, go to the beach, or read a really good book.