2020 global COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment in history. Grinding 21st-century life to a standstill and causing pain, suffering, and death to thousands. We have seen images of hospitals all around the world and yet unfamiliar as all this is to us, today’s images led by corona virus are similar to images led by a dangerous pandemic a century ago- the 1918-1920 Spanish flu. That deadly influenza is thought to have infected between a quarter and a third of the world’s population at the time and the global death toll is still disputed to this day with it ranging from 17 million deaths to 50 million deaths worldwide.
What was this Spanish flu?
Where did the Spanish flu come from? The origins of this particularly deadly strain of the flu are disputed. The common theory is that it began in the United States in March 1918 among soldiers at Fort Riley in Kansas. Those men were preparing for deployment to the Western Front, thus transporting the flu from North America to Europe during World War 1. The other theory is that it came directly from the trenches on the Western Front when soldiers on both sides began suffering from a novel type of influenza. Either way, it spread quickly among soldiers in Europe and eventually further afield. Given that whatever it’s the origin it did not start in Spain. While countries fighting in the war had strict censorship of the press and news of the lethal flu was suppressed because it might affect a nation’s morale but when the flu spread to Spain since they were neural country during the war, there was no press censorship around flu outbreak. Authorities there thought they were the only European nation battling this influenza, hence it became known as Spanish flu. A second more deadly wave struck in August 1918 hitting the ports for Freetown in Sierra Leone and Brest in France and Boston in the US and then it spread across the world. On an unprecedented scale, during world war one, when they were on the move in overcrowded conditions which is an absolute dream for the influenza virus to spread. On those overcrowded troopships on troop trains in prisoner of war camps, it spreads very rapidly indeed.
The symptoms were like normal flu, shortness of breath, sore muscles, high fever, headaches, and then it would progress. They would begin to have hemorrhaging in their lungs, edema in the lungs that their lungs will begin to fill with their bodily fluid, which means that people would drown in their bodily fluid. But the Spanish flu is different from today’s corona virus. For example, it killed a large number of healthy adults between 18 and 44 years old. That seems to follow a different pattern to the corona virus outbreak today, where elderly people are at greater risk of complications from this disease and this all took place in the aftermath of a world ravaged by global war, particularly devastating time for a pandemic to strike.
Back then they had no pharmaceutical interventions and had not even begun any notion of a vaccine, given; they didn’t even know it was a virus. Today we are so advanced and the help of ventilators and other treatments is helping us to treat people and save countless lives. Western Samoa witnessed 8,500 deaths while American Samoa had no death for they followed 5-day strict quarantine. Over in the US, six hundred and seventy-five thousand people died from the Spanish flu, but again there was a difference in some cities. Many cities followed early social distancing, they closed public gatherings, they asked people to stay away from one and another, on the other hand, Philadelphia was the worst-hit city the reason being, they didn’t move quickly and also held a huge liberty loan parade in late September that promotes a huge outbreak. The health care system was overwhelmed; everything from nurses and doctors through to those who could dig grave was simply overwhelmed. And people were unable to give to the sick, the dying, and the dead the kind of respect that they deserve. Under 2020 papers from a researcher at the federal reserve at MIT found that those US cities that had strict interventions also saw better revenue recovery. Given that Spanish flu killed working adults, the earlier they control, the better they can go back to work.
Is history repeating in Hyderabad?
According to the Hyderabad census of 1921, COVID-19 seems to be following the footsteps of this early deadly pandemic, Spanish flu of 1918, in Hyderabad. As per the report, it was sporadic when it hit the city during 1918. Just like how COVID-19 is only affected a small amount at the initial stage, the Spanish flu also followed the same way. But then suddenly influenza spiked rapidly in September and reached its peak by October end in 1918. It claimed several hundreds of lives in such a short span but then the pandemic vanished by the end of November on and itself. It followed a pattern shift of ‘slow’ to ‘very gradually high’ to ‘alarming height’ phases in the city that time and now it seems to follow the same. Hyderabad now seems to be moving into a ‘very gradually high’ stage as the reported number of cases is increasing day by day. But learning from the previous pandemic it is expected to move to ‘ alarming height’and hoped to subside down gradually as the viral infections might lose its sting. The daily death rate due to influenza rose to 46.5 percent per thousand by the end of September 1918, according to the census Hyderabad 1921 data.
As many public health experts have warned us for years that we have not been preparing for a pandemic even though the recent example of SARS or MERS have shown that outbreak can happen again. Perhaps this outbreak may change how countries respond to pandemics in the future. One key similarity between the Spanish flu and today is the emotional toll this will have. 2020, like hundred years ago will have a huge psychological effect not just on those who have lost jobs or who are struggling for money or who are living apart from their family but the countless lives lost around the world, of the devastating stories of people not being able to attend their loved one’s funeral, of the doctors and nurses that have died trying to save lives. Just like with the Spanish flu this is a profound moment in history but we cannot let it simply pass into history books. We must remember what we have learned and remember those we have lost.