How The Spanish Flu of 1918-20 was Largely Forgotten

Historians in the News
tags: media, journalism, pandemic, influenza, COVID-19

IN A REMARKABLE coincidence of history, this spring marks the 100th anniversary of the final serious outbreak of the Spanish flu, the world’s last big pandemic caused by a respiratory-based virus. It was the third-deadliest pandemic of the past millennium. Only the Black Death of the 14th century and the spread of smallpox to the Americas in the 16th century exceeded its death toll. From its appearance at the start of 1918 to its disappearance sometime in 1920 some 500m people—a quarter of the world’s population—caught the disease. Up to 50m died, more than were killed in combat in the two world wars combined. Yet despite the staggering toll, the crisis was poorly covered by many newspapers—including this one—and is often missing from history books.

One reason is the timing of its appearance, during the first world war. There were four major outbreaks of Spanish flu in Europe and America. Two, including the most lethal, occurred before the armistice in November 1918; a third started and ended before a peace treaty was signed at Versailles in June 1919. A fourth outbreak hit some parts of the world in early 1920, but was in most places much less deadly.

Scientists disagree on where the virus first appeared. A crowded British army camp in France, a farm in Kansas and a bird-migration route in China are all plausible suggestions. However, in order to maintain morale, wartime censors refused newspapers permission to report on the disease and its severity. In order to keep war production for the army as high as possible, few preventative measures were taken. But newspapers in Spain, which was neutral in the war, were allowed to cover the disease there freely. Their articles were republished around the world. And so the disease unfairly gained an almost certainly inaccurate nickname: “Spanish flu”.

The Economist appears to have obeyed the wartime censors and avoided discussion of the disease in its leaders or editorials until after the armistice. The newspaper and its then editor, Francis Hirst, had strongly opposed the war on pacifist grounds until 1916. But then he was forced to resign by the newspaper’s owners, the daughters of The Economist’s founder, James Wilson, including Eliza Bagehot and Emilie Barrington. They replaced him with the decidedly pro-war Hartley Withers, who seems to have chosen not to explicitly break the censors’ instructions.

Read entire article at The Economist

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