The Spanish flu killed millions and the fall of 1918 was the deadliest period. What lessons can we learn from the past in times of Corona?

They want to fight, fight the Germans when the ocean giant “Leviathan” took off from New Jersey on September 29, 1918. They are thousands of American soldiers on their way to the front in France. But their fight starts much earlier, shortly after shedding. Men die in agony, horror reigns.

To their horror, the crew and soldiers are helpless because the enemy on board the “Leviathan” is invisible: it is a virus, small but deadly. The decks are littered with sick people, the floor is smeared with blood. The nurses can do little to relieve the suffering of the sick and dying. “The groans and cries of the frightened sick mingled with the cries for help,” recalls a contemporary witness later, quoted by author Laura Spinney in her standard work “1918. The World in Fever.”

When the “Leviathan” finally reached Brest, France, 2,000 men were seriously ill and about 90 had already died. They were victims of the Spanish flu, or rather, the second wave of this devastating pandemic, which is estimated to have killed nearly 50 million people until it disappeared in 1920.

“A few hours until death comes”

Fever, headache and sore throat – these were the symptoms of the Spanish flu in the spring of 1918. At the time, it did not raise any particular fear, the death rate was not exceptionally high for the annual plague of mankind called flu.

Canadian farmers with face masks in 1918: The Spanish flu required similar measures to the coronavirus. (Source: Dick Loek / image images)

After this first wave, the second gradually followed in August 1918 and a world was in turmoil. The war continued, millions of people were mobile, many often weakened by the rigors and tensions of warfare. The second wave announced itself with the same symptoms as the first: the further course was much more deadly.

“It only takes a few hours for death to come,” said physician Roy Grist, describing what happened in a September 1918 training camp for the United States Armed Forces. “It’s a single fight for air before they choke. It’s awful.” Doctors around the world described the most frightening effect of this wave as “heliotropic cyanosis”: Shortly after the outbreak, many sick people suffered from severe respiratory problems. Starting with the feet and hands, the body color changed to the body and the bodies became darker and darker from lack of oxygen and even black. Death was the result in many cases.

Deadliest month?

Somewhere between the first and second waves, the virus likely mutated and became more deadly. Especially to the surprise of the researchers, especially for a population group that was thought to have a good chance of surviving disease: the 20 to 40 year olds. Unlike the elderly, they probably did not have adequate protection against previous infections, it is believed. November 1918 was probably the deadliest month for the Spanish flu in the United States, as historian Jim Harris writes.

This was due to negligence and ignorance, two factors that are still dangerous in the fight against the coronavirus today. In the metropolis of Philadelphia, for example, those responsible were initially much right. Officials tried to stop coughing, sneezing, and spitting in public. Just right to make the spread of the Spanish flu more difficult.

Camp Funston in Kansas: Numerous soldiers fell ill with the Spanish flu. (Source: Image Images / National MuseumxOf Health)Camp Funston in Kansas: Numerous soldiers fell ill with the Spanish flu. (Source: National MuseumxOf Health / Image Images)

But then the accident happened. On September 28, 1918, numerous people flocked to a large parade, the best opportunity for the virus to infect more people. About 200,000 people had seen the parade and a few days later the hospitals surrendered to the onslaught of sick people. Within seven days, nearly 50,000 people became infected and the number of deaths skyrocketed.

Public life has come to a standstill

To this day, Philadelphia is a warning example of what it means to act too late and indecisively in an epidemic. The city mourned about 748 deaths per 100,000 residents after 24 weeks, National Geographic reports, based on studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In St. Louis, Missouri, there were 358 deaths per 100,000 people. Why? Because the city not only acted quickly but also consistently.

Authorities largely shut down public life: meetings? Canceled, the upcoming parade, at least unlike Philadelphia. Schools, pubs and other places that would normally be full of people have closed.

Military cemetery in France: many of the dead died from the Spanish flu. (Source: Image Images / Eibner Europe)Military cemetery in France: many of the dead died from the Spanish flu. (Source: Eibner Europe / Image Images)

In contrast to other cities, the number of people infected with the flu rose relatively slowly. Doctors, nurses and clinics had more time to prepare and more time to treat the smaller number of sick people. And thereby save human lives. Like New York, which also took radical measures such as St. Louis in 1918. And where relatively few people died from the Spanish flu.

Lessons from the past

All these measures of life-saving social distance were taken without accurate knowledge of the exact pathogen of the Spanish flu. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the culprit virus was recognized as such. Decades later, humanity is much better prepared medically and technically for the current corona pandemic: leave it this way Many people are saved with modern fans that probably would not have survived before.

Last but not least, the second wave of the Spanish flu offers concrete lessons from the past. The example of St. Louis shows two things at the same time: on the one hand, courageous measures at an early stage help to flatten the infection curve and thus save time. Today about a possible vaccine.

On the other hand, it also means that the measures should not be terminated too early. Because when the city on the Mississippi returned to normal life in 1918 after more than eight weeks optimistically considering the few dead, the Spanish flu returned.

Above all, watching the Spanish flu teaches that patience is the key to success. The second wave raged almost all over the world, Australia largely spared by strict isolation. First. In early 1919, the responsible authorities slept to safety and relaxed measures. But a killer like the pathogen of the Spanish flu doesn’t forgive mistakes. 12,000 Australians died in the third wave.

In 1920 the Spanish flu finally subsided. Medical historian Philipp Osten summarized in an interview with Chillreport: “The survivors were immune, the others were dead.”

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