In 1918, a new influenza virus appeared, right in the middle of World War I. People called it the Spanish flu. It was later known as the H1N1 virus, or swine flu.
At the time, that conflict was called the War to End All Wars, or the Great War. It was so terrible, people all over the globe thought the end of the world was coming – and then, the 1918 flu pandemic came along.
During the two years this virus stuck around, 500 million people were infected. Anywhere between 17 million and 50 million people died, including over 675,000 Americans.
The doughboys who were infected while serving in Europe were often said to have “la grippe,” or malnourishment. It was later realized that they were catching this new flu.
According to later studies, this strain of the flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS skilled in 24 years. No country or location was immune. And it was particularly harsh on young people between the ages of 20 and 30.
The peak of this outbreak was in November 1918, which coincidentally is also remembered for the first Veterans Day celebration. Even now, we commemorate the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month because that is when the armistice was signed. Looking back on this period of history, we can see parallels to our own modern day pandemic.
On September 28, 1918, a patriotic parade was held in Philadelphia that featured returning soldiers, Boy Scouts, marching bands, and political dignitaries. Within three days, all of Philly’s hospitals were full, and 2600 people were dead by the end of the week. This forced municipalities to take a closer look at how they were responding to the virus.
The response was much swifter in other large cities. St. Louis, for example, shut down the school system, closed the restaurants and movie theaters, and banned all public gatherings. In San Francisco, citizens were required to wear gauze masks and were ticketed if caught without them.
Symptoms included headaches, tiredness, hacking cough, loss of appetite, stomach problems, and excessive sweating associated with chills and fever. Doctors, perplexed by this new disease, recommended cinnamon, wine, and beef broth. Others simply told their patients to avoid people altogether.
Now that we are firmly into the second week of quarantines, lockdowns, closures, and other limitations, now more than ever we should look at how viruses are spread. This is a silent killer. It can’t be seen, heard, or even felt until days after exposure.
I am convinced I’ve already had it.
We went on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico in December. A few days after returning home, I was the sickest I’ve ever been – and I mean, terribly, horribly sick. The chills and fever would not stop and the coughing wouldn’t go away. I self-medicated and tried to sleep it off, but just kept getting worse. I was diagnosed with strep throat and took the prescribed antibiotics for it. After a few weeks, the cough went away though it returned on occasion. The sore throat, chills, and fever subsided after about a week.
Thinking over that time, I believe I was exposed to it on the cruise ship. What’s scary to me now is that I went right back to school and work completely clueless about this coronavirus thing. I knew China was dealing with it – but other than that, I knew of no one who had it here in the United States.
Of course, all that has changed.
Please heed the warnings. Stay home. Do not go out unless absolutely necessary. The grocery store and the gas station will be there – no need to blitz them or buy everything in sight. The world is not coming to an end.
We will survive this, but the period of inconvenience will extend far into the future if people keep behaving as if nothing has changed. One need only look back at the response to the 1918 flu pandemic for insight.