Saturday, 9 May 2020

How does the Spanish Flu Compare with Covid19?

Recently, I saw a meme on Facebook berating people for not learning the lessons of history - and then proceeding to completely make up facts about the Spanish Flu, using a little graph lifted from the Wikipedia page. 
Feeling rather irate-historian-like that day, I started to point out inaccuracies in the comments. Then I remembered I had a thing I used to use in order to explain my opinions at length without anybody stopping me. So I dusted off the old blog (searched for a while for the lost login details), and here I am.

Before I tell you all about the Spanish flu, and all the fun that was, here are a few axioms for you:

Academic discourse, with its caveats, its quoting of sources and its attention to details is clearer and more accurate (whilst remaining imperfect) than almost any other means of communication we have. There is a reason why it can be verbose and finicky, and that is that its entire purpose is the finding out of truth. It is, however, not very engaging or vivid, for the same reasons.

Memes instead, are very vivid. They are created for impact. Their purpose is not uncovering the truth. Their purpose is to create a strong reaction in the reader (see - "vivid").

This blogpost will hopefully not be as verbose as an academic paper, and therefore lose some accuracy, I apologise for that. Nor will it be as vivid and shareable as a meme. But I shall try to keep it short.

So, enjoy my attempt at a half-way house!

1. The Spanish Flu: an almost meme-like summary

The Spanish flu was a strain of the flu of particular virulence which originated either on the front line in Europe (the WWI type, not the dancing NHS nurse type of front line), or in barracks in America. Either way, it thrived on war, because what could be better than getting lots of potential hosts together in barracks, so they can all be easily infected? Apart from, maybe, doing that then putting them in larger overcrowded spaces for weeks (ie, in boats bound for Europe) and then set them loose among other young men living in overcrowded spaces, who will also get on boats and go home at various points.
I mean, if a virus could day-dream about the perfect situation for world-domination, this would be it.
The pandemic killed at least 17 million people (almost certainly more) over 2 years, and the people who died in greatest numbers were in the 25 to 45 age range. So the ones who had already been dying in great number for four years. 

Quick facts check:

1. This was not the first time the flu had hit - it was a familiar disease. In fact, there were plenty of disbelieving headlines calling it "just influenza".

2. There were quarantines, but they were city-wide, not state-wide. The stopping of an entire country thing we're experiencing right now is completely new (as far as I can tell).

3. There was next to no economical impact, because the world had been at war for four years, food was already rationed, freedoms already curtailed and the world economies had already been overhauled to feed the war machine.

4. Quarantines worked well and were strictly followed because people were actually scared for their own lives. It's much easier to keep people at home when they believe they could actually die within a week, not matter how young and robust they are. It's harder to force them to do so for an ill-defined "greater good", especially if you fail to give any idea of how long they must do so.

5. The deadliest wave was indeed the second one, however, cities hit badly by the first wave had developed an immunity, and people did fare much better there.

6. The whole "people danced and hugged at the end of quarantine" thing, if true at all, is based on no data I could find. I personally find it very hard to believe (see, "scared" above, and "no country-wide lockdowns"), and would have been a good idea (see, "getting hit by the first wave" above). I mean, there was plenty of documented dancing in the streets to celebrate the end of the war, but that was later and, come on, give people a break! 

7. During the deadly second wave, something happened to the already virulent virus which made it shift from its usual victims (the frail and the elderly) to a form which was particularly catastrophic to people with healthy immune systems. The exact opposite of Covid19.

8. The Flu virus is not a Coronavirus. Comparing the H1N1's behaviour in 1918 to the new coronavirus in 2020 is academically fun, but in terms of predicting the behaviour of the second, it's about as useful as basing your expectations of how a leopard will react on your knowledge of elephants. 

9. I'm just going to repeat that last point. The coronavirus is not a flu virus.

10. It's not the same virus.

2: Actually Relevant Things to Consider about the Spanish Flu in Light of Covid19:

1. Did you know where the Spanish flu got its name? Not because Spain was hit first or hardest, but as it was one of the few countries in the world not at war, they reported the severity of the outbreak with relative accuracy. Unlike the rest of the world, who preferred patriotism and focus on the war effort to transparency. Many countries stumbled almost blindly into the pandemic because governments wouldn't collect or reveal the actual death rates. 

2. Scientists were ignored a lot. Governments argued that if they quarantined their troops and stopped the war effort, the other side would take advantage. And you could see their point, they were already sending these young men out to die anyway. Callous but logical.

3. Scientists didn't know very much. They could advise on quarantining measures, and they tried very hard to work on cures, but medical science as we know it was roughly a generation old, so not that entrenched. Even if governments had been more inclined to listen to scientists, it would have been crucial to choose the correct ones to listen to. For example, almost all the most preeminent scientists of the time thought influenza was caused by a bacteria, not a virus.

4. The reason I know who they should have listened to is not because I am a genius or the person who should have led the world in 1918 . It's because I was born long enough after the facts. And that's how pandemics work. 

5. It is a tough time for politicians who have to make decisions of enormous import with only probabilities to rely on. However, it is their job, and no-one has forced them to take it on, so there is no excuse for obfuscating, stringing people along, and generally treating us like unreliable teenagers.

In the spirit of not being an academic paper, this piece is not extensively cross-referenced. In the spirit of not being a meme, I will not sign it "Mahatma Gandhi" or "Native American Proverb" - but I will instead give you my main source, which is a very interesting read:

The Great Influenza cover art


  1. Thank you!
    I read this a while back but I never took the time to thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Are you planning a "what I read this year" post? I'd be interested.

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  3. Thank you so much for this blog! I've been spending today catching up on all you've written and you're wonderfully articulate <3 You've made me laugh so much today and made having children sound quite a bit more approachable. Blessings to you and yours <3