by Tom McBride

Flus Have Always Been Spanish

Tom McBride

Suppose there had been a Marist Mindset List for the college class of 10440. The first item on the List might have been: “The flu has always been Spanish.” College grads in 1940 were born in 1918, the year of the last COVD-19 scale pandemic in the United States. This was not the coronavirus, which had not yet hatched itself. 

It was the Spanish Flu. 

President Trump has sometimes called COVD-19 the “Chinese virus” because, he says, it came from China. The Spanish flu, though, didn’t come from Spain. It was so-called because when the flu hit Spain, which was not at war (this was the end of World War I), reports of the severity were not censored. Everything was in the open. So when people around the world first heard of this mass malady, it was all about its effects in Spain. Hence: The Spanish Flu. 

This is not to say that the flu wasn’t elsewhere, including the United States, where it killed 675,000 of us. But the United States government, fearing negative effects on war morale, censored the reality of the pandemic. It insisted that this was just “an ordinary flu by another name. Nothing to see here, they said. And they threatened to jail anyone who said otherwise. 

Another item from the Marist Mindset List for the Class of 1940: “Truth and falsehood have always been arbitrary terms.” This is a direct quote from the official government agency created to keep up American war spirits. 

How severe was the Spanish Flu? If you extrapolate from then to today’s world population, you get aroun350 million deaths. At last count fewer than 400,000 had died on on the planet from COVD-19. The current disease would have to kill several hundred times that many in order to match the Spanish Flu. Let’s hope it falls short. 

“It’s always been heard to tell white and black soldiers apart.” This could also be an item, a Spanish-flu-related item, from the Mindset List for the class of 1940. As the world was still at war, young soldiers were hit very hard by the flu, and according to some doctors and nurses, they turned so blue that it was impossible to distinguish sometimes between African-American and white soldiers. 

The flu’s symptoms were ghastly. Victims bled profusely from the mouth and nose. Fever was sky-high, breathing hard and then impossible. Unlike with COVD-19, which disproportionately affects the elderly, the Spanish Flu struck the younger hardest. Older people had lived long enough to develop partial immunity, it seems, but youth had not. 

Was there any treatment for Spanish flu? Again, if we turn to the hypothetical Marist Mindset List: “Enemas, whiskey and blood-letting have always been preferred treatment  for slu.” These were common ways to address the disease, and it is no great shock that none of them worked, though whiskey might have at least had a sedative effect. 

Enemas would have made dehydration worse, and as for blood-letting, there was already enough of that via the orifices of the face. 

Another quote from the Mindset List, Class of 1940, born in 1918: “A Liberty Bond parade has always been deadly.” Because Americans were not told the truth about the Spanish Flu, the city of Philadelphia went ahead with its crowded Liberty Bond Parade in the early fall of 1918. By Christmas, over 14,000 Philadelphians had died of the bug. In effect, Americans were ambushed by the flu. It came along in the spring, receded in the summer, and then saved its worst wave by far for the autumn. And then of course Americans were told that this was all no big deal. The war came first, though by November it had ende

Could this happen today? This is unlikely, given our mass media coverage and social networking. But this was a time before radio or TV or the Internet. News tended to be local, and local governments were keeping mum, too.  It was easier to fool the public, which had few resources for comparative information. 

As for treatment, in 1918 antibiotics were over twenty-five years in the future. The Spanish Flu, however, was a virus, not a bacterial disease. It was an unusually virulent H1N virus, not treatable then or now by antibiotics. But if the world had had penicillin back then, it might still have saved lives in treating linked bacterial infections arising from the dreaded flu. 

The Splanish Flu was far more deadly than COVD-19. Its kills rate was much higher, and in the midst of a world war, where truth is not a big priority, there was little taste for government warnings and widespread social distancing. Such isolation would have saved millions of lives. But it didn’t happen. 

Having visited itself on millions and millions, who either died or survived and got immunity, the Spanish Flu finally had no more bodies to swim in. It ddrowned. Americans got back to their lives, never quite having known what hit them until some years later when they began to reflect. But by the fall of 1918, as they saw photos of bit city policemen wearing masks, and high school gyms converted into hospitals, they must have known, at least subconsciously, that this was no garden variety influenza.

Tom McBride is a co-editor of the Marist Mindset List.  

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