Repost & Reconsider: The Spanish Flu, in the Age of COVID-19

I’m avoiding the pandemic coverage. Once you understand what you can/should do, it seems needlessly depressing to continue to watch the coverage. But earlier today, I heard part of a radio interview with an epidemiologist, i.e., a person who studies disease. She said that most people in her field believe that there is a devastating pandemic about every 100 years and gave some frightening numbers that represent the worst case scenario.

She talked a little about the Spanish flu, and how the scale could be about the same with COVID-19. And it’s right on time: the Spanish Flu ravaged the earth from 1918-1920. It made me wonder about the parallels between then and now. I’d like to figure out a few categories (like socializing, working, etc.) and compare human behavior between then and now. There must be something we could reach back and seize to use today. Or some mistake that was made that we could examine and avoid.

I didn’t have a lot of material about the Spanish flu to look back on. Just one post, which is about the damage wrought by the war and the flu, and what followed. You could think of the world like a caterpillar and the Great War and the Spanish flu as the chrysalis. But eventually the world came out of the chrysalis transformed into something bright and new.

Evidently the editor of Life Magazine also thought so!

A 1920 cover of life magazine


If we have to go through a 2-year chrysalis, that would be hard. However, if there is an opportunity to glean something, maybe we won’t have to repeat it. After all, as George Santayana told us: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


An Age of Agony

During the latter half of the 1910s, the world was plunged into an era of misery. World War I (1914 – 1918) destroyed life and property on a massive scale.

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, one of the largest battles

Battle of the Somme

65 million people joined the fight, despite grim survival odds. A World War I soldier stood a roughly 50/50 chance of returning home alive, with their physical health intact:

  • Est. 9.5 million troops killed (roughly the combined populations of present-day Denmark and Morocco)
  • Est. 21 million troops injured
  • Est. 6.5 million civilians killed during the war (roughly the combined populations of present-day Switzerland and Chile)
No Man's Land

No Man’s Land on the French front

Those lucky enough to survive the conflict and return home were rarely unscathed: missing eyes and limbs were very common, as were burns. Yet shell shock – the significant psychological reaction to the terrors of the front – was not considered to be an injury and is excluded from statistics.


gas mask

The gas mask, patent 1914, protected soldiers from mustard gas

Soldiers who suffered from shell shock often did not receive the treatment they needed because the problem was not understood – even by most doctors. This short, disturbing video highlights the plight of men returning from the front with this terrible problem.


In 1918, with the menacing shadow  of the war receding, a deadly new pandemic took hold of the world. The Spanish flu (1918 – 1920) lasted two years and dwarfed the casualties from the war.  Ordinary flu kills less than .1% of people who catch it. The mortality rate of the Spanish flu was appalling at 2.5%, with most casualties occurring in three waves. Though it attacked indiscriminately, the flu was far more likely to kill a young, healthy person than children or the elderly.

At least 20% of the world’s population was infected, and an estimated 40 million people died of influenza. More people died during each year of the Spanish flu pandemic than were killed during the whole of Europe’s terrible Bubonic Plague (1347 – 1351).

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston

Army photograph of soldiers infected with Spanish flu in Fort Riley, Kansas

Americans were hard-hit: 28% of the population contracted the illness and the impact was so severe that the average life span of an American decreased by 10 years. President Woodrow Wilson even caught the flu (he recovered).

The name of the virus originated with the wartime censors, who tried to minimize the flu’s spread and severity to avoid demoralizing troops. Reporters made no attempt to disguise the impact to neutral Spain however. The King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, became seriously ill with the flu, drawing extra attention.

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

Spain understandably did not appreciate having a pandemic namesake, nor the implication that the flu was worse in their country than anywhere else. So in Spain only, the flu was called Soldado de Nápoles (the Naples Soldier) after a song from an operetta that premiered in Madrid in 1918. One of the operetta’s stars wryly joked the music was “as catchy as the flu”. In recent years, researchers found the flu likely originated in Étaples, France, at a hospital camp.

Red Cross photo

Civilians and Red Cross nurses were required to wear masks to prevent the spread of the flu

It’s worth noting how terribly the French people suffered during these years. The country had a population of 40 million in 1914. During the next six years, approximately 4.2 million were wounded in the war; another 1.8 million were killed in the war or by the flu. Much of the war was fought in France, ravaging their economy and food supply. Dozens of villages and landmarks were destroyed, including the beautiful St. Quentin Cathedral, which took 200 years to build.

Destroyed cathedral

Walter Koessler, a lieutenant in the German army, captured this photograph of the destroyed St. Quentin cathedral.

Between the war and the flu, an estimated 65 million people (4% of the world’s population) perished. The Roaring 20s – a decade known for its fun, extravagance, and joyful shedding of old conventions – was a counter-reaction to the misery of the 1910s, an affirmation of the human spirit that cannot be crushed, come what will.

Life Magazine cover July 1 1926

Life Magazine cover
July 1 1926

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