I start by asking an intriguing question! What was the most disastrous event in World History that hit the first quarter of the 20th century? Rewind your life 3 months back and you would have unequivocally said that it was World War 1, obviously. But perceptions change with time. And I guess amidst this pandemic, many of us would think that the ‘Spanish Flu’ is a better answer to the above question. Well, I am not here to contest which was more disastrous out of the two, but if we are to define the disastrous-ness of something as the number of countries affected or the number of casualties, Spanish Flu wins this unfortunate race.
The Spanish Flu having thought to have struck the World in 1918 interestingly has nothing to do with Spain being the originator of this virus. It got its name simply because Spain was a neutral country in WW1 and had an independent censorship board, so all the news of the flu went from Spain through the world. Thus christening it as the infamous Spanish Flu. Though nobody is sure about the actual origin of the flu, it is believed to have originated in the dirty and unhygienic tranches made by the Allied Powers in World War 1. The Flu was disastrous for the World Economy infecting about 1/3rd of the entire population of the World. It is believed that more people died of the virus than the war, as the flu claimed 50 to 100 million lives. Coming to India the virus had a disastrous impact killing about 6% (17-18 million people) of the entire Indian population.
Thus, we can conclude that the virus was indeed disastrous for the World Economy. Now to understand it further, I have two options, either to go through a History textbook-based format and explain the details of the pandemic or to understand the Spanish flu in comparison with the current Coronavirus pandemic. I choose to go with the latter as I believe it would make things more interesting and relatable.
Can we compare the Coronavirus pandemic with the Spanish Flu?
Well interestingly, both of the viruses have a lot in common, from the Chinese Connection to similar circumstances, from remedies to attitudes of the governments. Therefore a comparison becomes inevitable.
While we all know that Coronavirus originated in China, very few people know about the Chinese connection in the Spanish Flu. In 2014, the National Geographic reported that the traces of the virus were first seen in China and the virus was transported to Europe through its labor (rings a bell – The Italy-Wuhan Industrial Relation). The labor was initially transported to Canada, which after 6 days landed in France and they were required to dig trenches (where the flu was allegedly originated), unload trains, build roads all at times of the war. All in all, 90,000 workers were mobilized to Europe. To make myself clear, I am not alleging any deliberate conspiracy but just pointing out the similarities between the two viruses in the form of what I call the ‘Chinese Connection’.
Coming on to our second point on the similar circumstances, we find that the two viruses were worth comparing. In 1918, the virus had absolutely no cure. People were dying constantly and yet the doctors were helpless in protecting them. It would be useful here to remember that Spanish Flu came in the era of WW1 which means that all the medical personnel was involved in treating the wounded. So, when we look at the US, we find out that most of the medical facilities were outside their continent and hence, the final and pre-final year students of medical colleges took charge as the primary doctors and nurses. This is something very similar to the situation that we currently witnessed in Italy.
Now, coming onto the most interesting part is the applied remedies and attitudes of the states. It is often said that history teaches you a lot. Well, perhaps not the case with the US. The Spanish Flu entered the US shores in the summer of 1918, and it was now time for the war returned personnel to spread the virus to the general public. Without a well-defined plan of action, the virus spread rapidly to the general public, especially in cities with the highest density of population (remember Ney York). With the pressure to appear patriotic at the time of war and with a censored media, many ill-planned decisions were made. For instance, the Director of Public Health of the city of Philadelphia announced that it is just the normal flu and not any special Spanish Flu and the city rejoiced with the Liberty Loan Parade. To their horror, in just over 10 days, 1000 people were dead and 200,000 infected. Read this carefully and you would be able to see a lot of similarities with present-day America.
What is also similar here is the fact that the countries had absolutely no response to the virus because of lack of medication. So, would anyone dare to guess the strategies adopted by the states? A calculated guess would lead you to the answer, that it is none other than lockdown and social distancing, industries in the US started to operate in shifts so that there is no crowding. A lot of governments across the globe gave the order to stay inside homes. A product demand also boomed during this period which is none other than the currently in trend face gauze masks.
Would COVID-19 be as dangerous as the Spanish Flu?
The above comparison gives me the impression that the reader might have a natural apprehension. The apprehension of whether COVID-19 will be as disastrous as the Spanish Flu. Well definite answers are surely not available right now but I feel that it is not even a distant possibility. I have several reasons for this. I categorize them as mental preparedness, political environment, and medical technology. Let us go again one by one.
Under Mental Preparedness we see that the World had witnessed a World War 1, nations were tired, economies crumbled, resources devoted towards wartime goods. Amidst this when a global pandemic comes knocking to your doors, the nation is just not prepared. Europe had fought its worst war; they could not just simply handle the epidemic, neither with their economic resources nor mentally. Today amidst COVID-19, the situation is way better as we are much better prepared mentally and are better informed.
The second reason is Political Environment, recall that the world at that time had very few democracies and colonization was at its peak. What do you expect from a colonial ruler? You simply expect no relief funds from the war broken the European States. We could say this with conviction if we look at the Indian example. The British simply gave no medical assistance to the Indian general population. 1918 was also the year when the Indian economy was stuck with a famine. With the countrymen fighting against both hunger and disease at the same time, the British provided little assistance. It could also be proven by the fact that India in 1919 saw its biggest ever movement against the British in the form of the Non-Cooperation Movement and this exploitation could surely be a contributing factor, if not a dominant one. Today, in contrast, we see a majority of countries practicing democracy, where the governments are responsible for and accountable to its people.
Finally, looking at the Medical Technological Advancement today, we can say with conviction that we are much better off. Unlike today, those times were characterized by no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs to treat the flu (remember the first licensed flu vaccine came to America in the 1940s). The scientists found it very difficult to establish that the flu was indeed a virus and not Bacteria. Luckily, today the medical equipment is much more advanced and we are in a better position to face a pandemic like this.
Well, what would happen ahead is surely a mystery, but one thing we must hope is that it shouldn’t be as bad as the Spanish Flu, else we are in deep trouble.