Minus the War

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

Despite a world-changing difference, the 1918 and 2020 pandemics share striking commonalities

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
November 11, 2020

Quarantines. Disagreements over masks. An infected U.S. president. Are these unique to COVID-19? Or is history repeating itself?

In some ways, it is, observes Raffael Scheck, the Audrey Wade Hittinger Katz and Sheldon Toby Katz Professor of History. Because all of these were also part of life during the 1918 influenza pandemic, or better known as the Spanish flu. That pandemic was accompanied by a world war, Scheck notes, but its similarities to today are telling.

“I’m living through very interesting times, and that has made me much more aware of this precedent,” he said.

Putting the two pandemics side by side, Scheck drew out three main similarities—denial, blaming of the “other,” and debate around masks—set against one major difference: the First World War (WWI). In 1918, the war not only increased the virus’s spread but also dictated countries’ response to it, including downplaying the pandemic and denying the virus’s true impact, its origin, and the effectiveness of masks. But even in the absence of a global war, those strategies reappeared in 2020 for different reasons.

The Spanish flu added to the global chaos in March 1918, months before the war ended. Appearing in a troop camp in Kansas, the virus traveled from troopships to trenches in Europe to military hospitals, prisoner of war camps, and port cities, circling the world. A cough or sneeze away, it went after the healthiest immune systems of 18- to 40-year-olds and hit the globe in three waves. It gained the name “Spanish” flu because Spain, absent from the war, didn’t censor reporting around the virus; and Spanish officials in June 1918 claimed that the disease was limited to their country because it wasn’t being reported elsewhere, Scheck explained.

Before it died down in 1920, the virus wiped out roughly four percent (about 50 million people, although estimates vary) of the world’s population and became the deadliest pandemic in modern history. It affected Colbians, too. Of the 19 alumni memorialized at the base of the Miller Quad flagpole for losing their lives in WWI, at least five, and possibly as many as 10, died not of battlefield injuries, but of the virus, Scheck said.

Diseases and wars often go hand in hand, he explained. The difference in 1918 was the scale of people’s movement due to a worldwide war. And the virus’s damage intensified as countries focused on fighting one another and overlooked their common, invisible enemy.

Because governments wanted their citizens’ full support behind the war effort, “most countries tried to restrict the degree of open discussions of topics that might be harmful to morale, that might be causing concern or worries about the outcome of the war or the future,” said Scheck.

To that end, the U.S. government, like many others, took steps that included passing the Sedition Act of 1918 to contain any news hindering the war effort. Thus, the number of deaths and the seriousness of the virus went underreported in the media of the warring countries.

In 2020 governments tried to tone down COVID-19’s impact too. In the U.S., President Donald Trump, who “knew about the danger presented by the pandemic but didn’t fully reveal that knowledge,” didn’t want to alarm the American people by adopting stringent measures to control the spread, Scheck said. “That is certainly something that happened in 1918,” he stressed.

And myths by governments spread faster than the virus during both pandemics.

In the war atmosphere of 1918, countries and citizens grew suspicious of one another and tended to place the origin of the virus on the enemy. The Poles named it the Bolshevik Disease; the Russians used Kirghiz Disease or Spanish Lady; the Germans called it Three-day fever or Flanders fever; the British and some Americans used Hun Flu or German Plague; the U.S. Army referred to it as the Purple Death.

“For many people in Britain and America,” Scheck said, “the simple similarity of [the words] ‘germs’ and ‘Germans’ was enough proof that this was a German disease.” In the U.S. people speculated that German submarines or German aspirin had brought the virus to America. Consequently, suspicion of German Americans escalated to personal attacks and lynchings. “This poisonous atmosphere already existed before the flu hit, but it [the pandemic] provided the background for the claim that the disease was brought on by Germany,” he said.

In 2020 some American leaders tried to distance themselves from the virus and blamed China for the outbreak. They called the coronavirus the “Chinese” or “China” virus and the “Kung Flu,” which subjected Asian Americans to racist attacks, Scheck pointed out. This, he said, “seems really genuine to the present political climate.”

Another controversy centered around masks—a debate that has carried over from then to now.

Like us, most people living through the Spanish flu quickly understood masks’ effectiveness in slowing the spread of the disease. But some people believed masks would alarm the public and others, echoing a familiar argument from our times, said wearing a mask violated their civil liberties, Scheck said.

For others, masks clashed with cultural habits like smoking, which was widespread and a huge business in the early 20th century. Tobacco companies suggested that smoking would strengthen the respiratory system and prevent the disease. Some investors even designed masks with little openings to enable smoking. In San Francisco, where the government placed a heavy emphasis on masks, the debate spawned an anti-mask league.

Other states, just as in the COVID-19 pandemic, implemented their own measures with varying degrees of success. Philadelphia officials, ignoring doctors’ warnings, hosted a war-bond fundraiser with 200,000 people, resulting in more than 12,000 deaths. Cities like St. Louis, on the other hand, closed schools and cinemas, canceled large gatherings, and, as a result, had infection rates one-eighth of those in Philadelphia.

“A virus,” Scheck said, “spreads very well in an atmosphere of censorship and denial.”