Recent increase in COVID 19 has caused a bitter battle between Americans and the world. The decision to mask up or not mask up is not a argument contained in this country, but in every country and it has led to some heated arguments in my household recently. My youngest and I were at lunch (we always have philosophical conversations over lunch while I am drinking coffee and he is having his root beer with light ice), discussing the mask issue and he asked why it was called the Spanish Flu. 'Well son, I assume because it came from Spain'. 'WRONG', he yelled at me. The joy that he gets at stumping his mother is overwhelming. After grounding him for his cockiness which lasted all of 3.2 seconds-we started looking up facts about the Spanish Flu, why it would be compared to COVID 19, and why it is used in memes to promote the use of masks. Disclaimer- this is not a political post to push the use of masks or not, the choice is up to you. I just know that I spent the equivalent amount of money of a new pair of glasses on masks, so that I can grocery shop in the local Fred Meyers and Wal-Mart. I don't need the glasses anyways, as I can't see out of them when I wear the mask. I tried, but when I got home from grocery shopping the other day, I found out that I picked out hair remover instead of shampoo.
To get us in the mood to talk about a soulless, microscopic organism that has killed a lot of people, I found a rhyme used while skipping rope that speaks of the devastation of this disease and how school age children in 1918 were dealing with its affects
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza
I opened the window,
Wasn't that pleasant? Just as heart warming as Ring Around the Rosie!
So what is the truth behind the Spanish Flu?
Fact #1- Between 1918-1919, the pandemic killed more people than WWI's combined deaths- the number of deaths due to the flu believed to be between 20-40 million people according to standford.edu The CDC reports that at least 500 million people were infected, and that the number of deaths is at least 50 million. The medicalxpress.com reports that between 50 to 100 million people may have died, and that just in the first 6 months- 25 million people fell to its deathly grasp . Regardless of who is reporting the numbers- they are all pretty darn high when compared to the number of military and civilian casualties is at 40 million with at least 2 million of those deaths due to diseases (not the Spanish Flu) over 4 years. It actually had a death rate in one year greater than the 4 years combined of the Black Death Bubonic Plague that lasted from 1347-1351, and that event has at least 15 different documentaries on it. Why do we not talk about the Spanish Flu as much as we do other diseases? Glad you asked!
Fact #2- The debate of its origins is still on going. Was it Haskell County, Kansas and Fort Riley, Kansas where 500 soldiers were hospitalized and 48 soldiers died in March 1918 before the outbreak? According to the Kansas Historical Society, a local doctor sent a report to the Public Health Service, but no one came out to investigate. Was it Aldershot, U.K and Etaples, France where it was found among the soldiers fighting in the trenches? In 2004, the Journal of Translational Medicine reported that a British scientist J.S. Oxford believed that the pandemic started in a British army post located in France where there is documentation of 'purulent bronchitis' starting in 1916. Was it the Shanxi Province in China where a respiratory disease outbreak in 1917 might have been the flu in its infancy? In 2014, the National Geographic reported a story where Historian Mark Humphries of Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada reported that he found records that proved that 96,000 Chinese laborers were sent to work behind the British and French lines, many of them experiencing flu like symptoms. In November 1918, China health officials reported the presence of a respiratory illness in 1917 that resembles the Spanish Flu to a tea. Any theory of course needs samples from someone who died from the disease before it reached anywhere else in the world to prove its origins which may or may not happen. However, every single possibility does not point to Spain! Regardless if it was the U.S., China, or France- laying claim for being responsible for the most deadly disease known to the modern world would be devastating to the government and those who were in charge. History books would change, new memes would be created on how horrible key members were, it would be chaos when there is already so much- so no one wants to take credit.
Fact #3- Since we now know that Spain did not breed the disease in a test tube during WWI, releasing it to cause havoc on the world, why did they get blamed? I am still looking for that meme blaming Spain, I think that it was taken down, but if I find it again I will add it to this post. Spain was taking a back seat to WWI and was a neutral party, because of this they were willing to report the disease in their local newspapers. This led to the unfounded belief that Spain was the originator. Other countries, like the U.S., Germany, Austria, U.K., and France were not of the same mind frame. Governments had a unspoken policy to keep the lid closed on the disease and its effect on population numbers. Lets face the truth on this one, the world was closing shop on the war, and they needed the morale to be unaffected. Governments needed to get their Service Members home, and telling people that after 4 years of surviving the war that no one was prepared to financially or medically take on a killer flu would not have been good publicity for any elected official. This outbreak might have also contributed to the government leaders ending the war, but that is another topic for another day. So we don't know how it got started, where it originated from, or how many people actually died from it. What do we know? You are going to love this!
Fact #4- An little unknown Alaskan village was the key to uncovering the genetic markers behind the Spanish Flu killer. If you don't live in Alaska, you might not appreciate the term permafrost, but to us that deal with its effects every day (especially while driving) we know that permafrost can last forever! And thank God for that natural preservation- go mother nature! In 1951, a young Swedish scientist studying at the University of Iowa by the name of Johan Hultin traveled to Brevig Mission where 72 out of 80 villagers (mostly Inuit Natives) died over a 5 day period (November 15-20 1918) from the Spanish Flu. It was most likely brought there by local traders, but it all but wiped out the village. The mass grave, identified only by a small white cross, held the bodies perfectly preserved. Hultin got permission from the village elders to excavate and take samples from those poor souls. Now, this was 1951, technological limitations prevented him from traveling all the way back to Iowa with the samples intact- but years later he meet up with molecular pathologist working for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology who was also studying the Spanish Flu and they compared notes. Long story short, Hultin went back to Alaska to get more samples from a body he named Lucy who was buried about 7 feet deep and shipped them to Taubenberger who was able to positively identify the genetic makeup of the 1918 Spanish flu. In 2005, the disease was recreated in a CDC lab by microbiologist Dr. Terrence Tumpey, approved by the CDC director, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Go Alaska! You really should read further into this story, and why this recreation is important to current testing on diseases, I am including the link below! So we don't know a lot, but we do know what the disease can do because we brought it back to life! I am not sure how many mice were sacrificed for this knowledge, but I am assuming that New York City experienced a shortage of their city's mascot during the testing phase.
Fact #5- Why is any of this information important? Understanding diseases in a world history context traditionally means understanding trade, wars, and population crisis's. The are mixed together like a brownie mix. Generally, society wants to think of history in the limitations of human actions- this happened because this person did that. However, this is not always the case. History also happens because someone got some disease whether it be Small Pox, the Spanish Flu, the Black Plague, COVID-19, etc. Disease have been our constant campions since, well, there were humans. Its like the Alaskan misquote- they never truly go away, no matter what you spray yourself with.
However, historical speaking, diseases that wipe out populations are not completely bad, in the BIG picture. Most information that we have about early civilization comes because people typically only write in details about their lives when there are huge tragic events. For example the Epic of Gilgamesh, the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in China, and the 430-429 BCE plague that hit Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Thank you Crash Course History for reminding me of those events. War and trade is generally a common factor when there is a major outbreak such as in Western Europe during the Black Plague, and can be contributed to one of the main reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. When large populations die, it tends to create some opportunity's for those who lived. People are usually in positions to negotiate for higher wages, and goods received are usually at a lower cost when there are not 25 people for every 1 job. Disease outbreaks also have helped to create new construction techniques like building out of brick and morter instead of wood and straw, which anyone knows- diseases can fly right though. It has also led to an overhaul of religious beliefs, which could be found best in the 14th century when priests and clergy men were ineffective in combating the plague and led to a greater receptiveness of the Protestant Reformation. And finally, diseases especially wide spread tend to lead to a increase in scientific research and understanding which leads to prevention of said diseases! Diseases are still shaping human history, and in my belief has been the most powerful force. We can never get rid of the unseen enemy as it is always evolving into something more powerful and scary.
Final thought, regardless of your thoughts of COVID 19- it is another instance of humanity being interlinked. Americans, Chinese, Spanish, it does not matter- we are all connected by those things we can not see. Empires, kingdoms, countries, and cities have seen their dismissal from the worlds playing field because of something as small as a flea. Ponder that thought when you think humans are on top of the food chain.
To be masked or not to be masked- that is the greatest question!
My favorite part of my blogs- further research that you can look into. As with all my recommendations, this is not a 'be all, do all', but merely a jumping board for you to continue on your own if you chose.
Books that can be found on Amazon:
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Berry
Virus 1918: Spanish Influenza- the words of people who lived it. by Robert John Hadfield
Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History by Catharine Arnold.