Why We Can’t Compare the “Spanish Flu” Waves to This Pandemic

The 3 Waves of the “Spanish Flu”
Most people had no idea that the first wave was happening, thus a faulty comparison to now.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / Public domain

We’ve heard the predictions of multiple COVID-19 waves for months. Our current stage is being disputed, with some people calling this the 2nd wave, while others argue that we’ve haven’t left the first. Regardless, the comparison between this pandemic and the “Spanish Flu” has been ongoing throughout this crisis. This focus on the waves of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic has particularly been used as a PSA of what not to do now. However, as I wrote in my post “Your Wise Friend Was Wrong” about a “Spanish Flu” meme that was circulating, this ahistorical comparison assumes too many similarities between then and now. Yes, we can and should learn from historical outbreaks, but we have to first understand what was known about disease at the time and what was communicated to the public.

Influenza (also called “la grippe”) was a familiar disease in 1918, predictably seasonal and usually mild. Doctors were not required to report deaths from influenza to the U.S. Public Health Service, even though it became epidemic in several years, including 1915-16. Influenza was not usually fatal, at least not for those outside of vulnerable populations.

The First Wave (from a contemporary understanding)

The H1N1 virus that attacked in 1918-19 was unique in its frequent complication of a deadly pneumonia and its high mortality among young adults. Outbreaks of this influenza/pneumonia likely first occurred in Kansas, at Camp Funston and the nearby Haskell Institute. Throughout the next two months, other military camps experienced high numbers of cases. These clusters of disease and death received almost no media coverage, other than a few stories that presented the outbreaks as isolated incidents, downplaying the severity of this new threat.

This article appeared at the bottom of page 2 of the Topeka State Journal on April 4, 1918. Coverage of (what we now identify as) the first wave was limited.

By the end of May, the outbreaks dwindled in the U.S.

Looking back, we now recognize these Spring outbreaks as the “first wave” of the influenza pandemic. However, in the moment, the lack of media coverage meant that most Americans had no knowledge of the rising cases. Most attention was directed to supporting the soldiers in World War I.

For the people of 1918, the influenza pandemic appeared to begin in June. Stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, and other U.S. papers reported on June outbreaks in China, Madrid, Morocco, India and Berlin and then throughout Europe in July. While cases appeared back in the U.S. at the end of the month, American media outlets only covered the epidemics elsewhere.

The Second Wave (but it seemed like the first)

It wasn’t until an eruption of U.S. cases in mid-September that the government and press publicly acknowledged that the epidemic had arrived. From September through November, the “Spanish Flu” raged throughout the United States. Quarantine was imposed at various degrees, as stores, public venues, and schools closed for 1-2 months. The people felt and lived this wave, as it affected the everyday lives of even the healthy.

The Third Wave

A third wave followed in the Spring, much of which was attributed to the mass transport of troops following the end of the war. Life didn’t shut down for this reemergence, however, at least not on a mass scale.

Why we can’t compare the pandemics

Outside of their available newspapers and magazines, the people of 1918 had very little media access. Information beyond what was in print simply wasn’t conveyed to the public, including the prevalence of influenza in Spring of 1918. To them, as presented in media, the first wave didn’t exist, the “Spanish Flu” began overseas, and even at the height of the epidemic, the war dominated all news.

With our abundant media outlets and individual-created content, we are in a different world than 102 years ago. We have known about COVID-19 since 2019, tracking its spread and watching its devastation. In other words, we cannot compare the notion of waves in 1918 as applying to this pandemic, at least not in the response of the public back then to now. What we can take away, however, is that the “Spanish Flu” eventually did subside, as will COVID-19.

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