The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic
I just finished John Barry’s book on the 1918 Spanish flu titled: “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” It was very well done and very disturbing — all at the same time.
The Spanish flu originated with cows and pigs in Haskell, Kansas in January 1918. Two soldiers on leave from a huge army base in eastern Kansas contracted the disease and brought it back to the base. Due to the numerous troop movements of the era, the Spanish flu eventually spread to every corner of the globe.
The first wave of the Spanish flu was very contagious but it was relatively mild. I’m not minimizing it, though. Nonetheless, the first wave of the pandemic burned out by July 1918 and the consensus around the world was that it was over.
However, in September 1918, a new and more deadly wave of the Spanish flu emerged at an army base in the Boston area. Subsequent to that, the pandemic spread like wildfire and killed tens of millions of people all over the world. It finally burned itself out by the end of the year.
There was no federal response to the Spanish flu in the U.S. in 1918. Woodrow Wilson was totally focused on WWI and left everything up to the state and local governments. Social distancing, masks and quarantines were the most frequent remedies.
The author gave a rather haunting epilogue in this 2005 book. In Barry’s opinion, an effective response to what he foresaw as a future pandemic was honest leadership that didn’t minimize the disease. He also saw prolonged economic shutdowns as unrealistic due to the economic hardships and peoples’ general refusal or reluctance to do it for very long. He said about the best we could all do is frequently wash our hands.