Key to the Spread of the Spanish Flu: the War

The Spanish flu was the deadliest pandemic the world has seen. It killed between 50 and 100 million people. The virus was that successful because it broke during Word War I. If it had struck in peacetime, the death toll would not have been that high.

Here is how the war helped spread the Spanish flu:

Wartime overcrowding

The Spanish flu appeared in the spring of 1918, when the globe was in the middle of World War I.

So, at the time, there were many military camps across the U.S. and in Europe. And when the flu broke out, these were the ideal breeding ground for the virus.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers lived in closed quarters in these camps, making it easy for the flu to spread.

Before the war, the U.S. had 375,000 soldiers. By 1918, the year that flu broke out, it had 4,7 million soldiers. And all those soldiers lived in the newly-built crowded camps.

They first lived in the training camps in the U.S. Then, they were sent to Europe in crowded ships and trains. And when they landed in the war zone, they lived in military camps.

Now, the Spanish flu was virulent: it killed people in a matter of hours. Someone that started feeling sick in the morning could be dead in the evening.

And usually, virulent viruses are not very successful. Since the infected person dies so fast, he/she does not have time to pass the virus to anyone else.

But with the overcrowded conditions of the camps, this contagious virus could be virulent and still infect hundreds.

If one person in a barrack caught the bug, he could infect 7 or more of his neighbors in a matter of hours. And they, in turn, could infect 7 or more people each before dying a few hours later. By the second day, the whole barrack was sneezing and coughing with the flu.

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Shortage of doctors and nurses

Black and white picture. Two rows of nurses. Some are standing, while others are sitting in front of a pile of face masks. All of them wear face masks.
Red Cross volunteers from Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. in 1918. The nurses and doctors were serving with the military. So when the flu struck, there was a shortage of medical personnel in the cities. The governor of Massachusetts had to ask for volunteers.

After lingering in the military camps for a while, the flu made its way to the civilian population.

Thousands and thousands came down with the flu in towns and cities. And they began filling the hospitals. But there was a shortage of trained personnel to take care of the sick. The nurses and doctors had been drafted for the war effort.

In the U.S., for example, 30% of the medical personnel was serving in the military at the time.

So institutions like the Red Cross called for volunteers to act as nurses. And countries like the UK and the U.S. called their medical students to fill in for the doctors.

The censored media cannot report the epidemic

As if all that was not enough chaos, the countries involved in WWI were under a news blackout.

It is a usual technique that governments employ when they are at war. The media is blocked from reporting what really is going on, how many wounded and dead there are, etc. It is meant to keep up the morale of the citizens. That way, they are not faced with the horrors of war and do not take to the streets to protest.

To that same effect, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI). It was an organization that spread pro-war propaganda.

But it went above and beyond. After catching the CPI spinning several outright lies about the war, the New York Times called it “the Committee on Public Misinformation.”

The CPI was based on the ideas of Arthur Bullard, who infamously quipped: “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms… The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

So truth was to be replaced by a narrative that supported the war effort. In order words, by fake news.

Furthermore, the president had Congress pass the Sedition Act. It forbid people to say anything pessimistic, claim for peace, or talk against the government. Those things were considered treasonous, and perpetrators were imprisoned for 20 years. So everyone was gagged.

All the countries at war were under similar censorship conditions.

Therefore, it was not the time to report a nuisance like an epidemic decimating the population. It would bring down the morale.

And the public official or newspaper that dared break the news could end up behind bars.

So the people did not even know there was a pandemic going on. Which meant they carried on as usual and did not protect themselves against it.

And it is in that atmosphere of denial and misinformation that one of the oddest episodes of the Spanish flu took place.

Read next: What Worked Against the Spanish Flu, and What Finally Stopped It

A parade to fund the war spreads the disease

Aerial view of a wide street flanked by tall buildings. Cars and soldiers move along the street as part of the parade. Thousands of people crowd the sidewalks to watch them.
Philadelphia did not cancel its parade. And ended up being the city with the second-highest death rate in the U.S. Pictured Philadelphia’s parade, September 28, 1918. (Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command/Public domain)

So the media was gagged, and the public officials were under pressure to keep up the morale.

In Philadelphia, among other cities, this approach was disastrous.

The nearby city of Boston was beginning to suffer from the epidemic. The flu was making its way into the city from the military camps. The Bostonians had actually announced it in their media.

Yet, it was business as usual. A ship from Boston arrived in Philadelphia in early September 1918.

Some of its sailors were sick. But Philadelphia’s Director of Public Health, Wilmer Krusen, followed the government’s directives and downplayed the situation. He told the citizens there was nothing to worry about.

The next day, two sailors died. Krusen said they died from the common flu.

The following day, 14 more sailors were dead. Yet, the papers and the authorities claimed in unison that there was no cause for alarm.

Even more, the city had a parade planned for September 28. It was to raise funds for the war.

Now, this was five months into the pandemic. The first wave had begun in March and then subsided. The second wave, which was going to be deadlier, was just beginning.

Thus, the doctors did have an idea of what was going on in the military camps and elsewhere. It was they who were tending the sick, after all.

So they wrote to the public officials begging them to stop the parade. And they wrote to the newspapers explaining why it should be canceled.

But the letters were not published. And the parade went on.

It was a massive event with 200,000 attendees -the largest in the city’s history.

Just two days after the parade, the epidemic was ravaging Philadelphia. Krusen himself, the director of health, had to concede that the situation was beginning to look like the one in the military camps.

Since his denial technique had not been useful, he finally started closing schools and banning gatherings.

Two weeks after the parade, more than 800 Philadelphians were dying every day.

The corpses remained in the houses for days. The funerary system had collapsed.

The priests stepped in. They drove horse-drawn carriages throughout the city day and night. And they called for the citizens to bring out their dead. The bodies were piled up in the carriages and taken to the mass graves for burial.

The cold-storage plants were used as morgues. While some generous companies donated crates to serve as coffins.

The result of the parade is that some 20,000 Philadelphians died. Most of them during the six weeks following the big event.

Philadelphia had the second-highest death rate in the country.

But Philadelphia was far from the only city to make the media-blackout mistake. In New York, the health commissioner said the illness circulating through his city was the common flu and not the “so-called Spanish influenza.”

So New York, too, was among the U.S. cities worst hit by the pandemic (30,000 plus deaths).

In other towns where the authorities were frank about the situation from the beginning, like in St. Louis, the death rate was much lower. Probably because the appropriate measures, like lockdowns, were taken in time.

The Spanish flu virus was more contagious and deadlier than its cousin the common flu. So it was always going to cause many deaths. But it was able to become the worst pandemic in history because of the wartime conditions.

Read also: 

What Was the Spanish Flu, And Its Symptoms

How Many Died From the Spanish Flu? By Continent and Country

The Real Origin of the 1918 Flu Pandemic

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