What do you really know about the 1918 pandemic? Recent events have led me to learn a little about it, and based on my conversations, the little I have learned is measurably more than most. It is bizarre how little we know about what happened only a century ago, in what is clearly one of the largest death events in the history of the world.
I had heard about plagues, whether branded “black,” or scientifically named, “bubonic.” Both sound sinister and evil to me. But the 1918 “Spanish Flu” didn’t need branding to sound ominous–it was pretty damn awful by every measure without it. Spain gets “credit” not because that is where the disease originated, but because it is where media coverage of it did. In today’s world, the naming of it sounds more like blame than discovery.
675,000 Americans died from it in less than two years. That’s more than in any American war, including World War II and the Civil War. At the same per capita rate today, that pandemic would have killed more than 2 million, just in this country. Globally, an estimated 500 million were infected, a third of the world’s population, killing 50 million. Again to be clear, those are not typos.
Many things have changed since then. The U.S. Public Health Service had been created in 1912, just six years before our nation’s greatest health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would not be founded for almost thirty more years in 1946. Innovation and technology in healthcare has grown by leaps and bounds.
The world was lucky in 1918, believe it or not. There was never a cure or a vaccination discovered that saved the two thirds of the world’s population who were never infected. Those who had contracted the disease either died or developed immunity. And that was how it ended.
Why is this not commonly known, even now? David Brooks made the comment on PBS News Hour back in March that the reason there has been so little written about the event is because Americans treated each other so badly then that our culture was profoundly ashamed. As he wrote in his March 12 New York Times column: “When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become.”
Rebecca Onion’s wonderful article for Slate, commemorating the 100-year “anniversary” of it last year, provides some clarity. “Did We Forget to Memorialize Spanish Flu Because Women Were The Heroes?” is a piece that discusses the heroic selflessness of the nurses of the period. Virtually the entire profession was made up of women, who were able to accept that there was no cure, no miracle, no hydroxychloroquine to provide any reason for optimism, rational or not. They accepted their charge as to simply care for those afflicted. Keep the sick as comfortable and hydrated, clean and warm, as they could. All the while knowing that death was near to the patient and possibly to themselves.
These heroes spoke of the experience as the most beautiful and meaningful of their lives.
Onion wrote a followup article earlier this month, with her interview of scholar Elizabeth Outka, capturing an important discussion of how the tragedy impacted the literary world then and since. Outka authored the “fortuitously timed” 2019 book Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. These stories are the ones we should be reading carefully right now.
Much of what haunts us today is our ignorance of the past. While it astonishes how little has been written about it, there is more than enough there to reroute us toward a healthier, more compassionate path today.
When the dust settles after COVID-19, what will we remember? It could be the struggle of stay-at-home orders, cancelled sports seasons and concerts, and lord knows, restaurant closures. Some of the fallout of the last crisis is much like today’s. There was economic devastation, mask-wearing, and political fallout.
The selfishness we see today happened then too.
It would be wise to treat each other in a way that will enable us to live well together afterward. Are we doing that? Fighting over the validity of wearing masks is an example of how we are not. There is nothing to be gained, for those who don’t want to wear one, by displaying hostility toward those who do. Nothing.
I wear a mask to protect you from me. It is a helpful, tiny gesture. Start collecting your own tiny gestures now–they will serve your soul well after this passes.