In grade school I asked my teacher why we had to learn history. I mean who cares, it already happened. She pulled out the old, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Philosophy was way above my pay grade and thirteen-year-old me was about as deep as a plate of cereal; so, I just went back to thinking about boobies.
On May 22, 1918 the newspaper in Madrid, Spain reported a mild, flu-like illness had been popping up. Smart ass Spaniards started calling the sickness “Soldado de Napoles” (Naples Soldier) after a popular song because the song was highly infectious like the virus (Viruses hadn’t been discovered in 1918 but you get the point).
Historians don’t agree on where the Spanish Flu came from. The three most tossed around origins are France, America, and China. They do agree one thing, and that is that it absolutley did not come from Spain. See, in 1918 there was this little thing going on in Europe called World War One. Governments censored the news because nobody wanted to look weak by admitting they were getting tore up by some mystery disease. Instead of any kind of global effort to combat the spread of the virus countries just blamed whoever they were fighting. Spain wasn't at war so pretty much the only place admitting they had a problem was Spain.
Over in America, President Woodrow Wilson was using the Sedition Act to muzzle the shit out of the press. You could get 5 to 20 in the pokey for saying anything bad about the government or making people lose support for the war effort. Headlines like, “Military training camps are completely overrun with deathly ill recruits. If you make it out of basic training alive, you’ll get to spend a month on a ship packed with sick soldiers. If you make it to Europe still breathing, you’ll be sent to the front lines, where conditions can only be described as Hell on Earth. If the bombs and mustard gas don’t get you the virus probably will” wasn’t great for recruiting or selling war bonds.
More U.S. soldiers died from the Spanish Flu than combat. Woodrow Wilson did say this one thing about the pandemic… Oh wait, he didn’t say anything. Not one single goddamn thing. Ever. Although he did put the nation’s health sector under government control so he could syphon all the nurses and doctors into the war effort, leaving the country completely unprepared and unprotected from what was coming. lacking any sort of information or cooperation, communities around the globe were left to fend for themselves.
Back in Spain, once the King got sick and bodies started piling up, leaders began implementing lockdowns. As a collective nation, citizens came together and said, “You mean all I have to do to stay alive and to protect the people around me is to stay home and wear a mask and social distance if I do have to go somewhere? Doing the right thing has never been so easy. Count me in!”
Come on. You know that didn't happen.
In Zamora, Spain, Bishop Álvaro y Ballano didn’t think much about the town’s attempts to flatten the curve. He said the disease was God’s punishment for people not being grateful enough to God. He declared nine days of services to be held in honor of Saint Rocco, the patron Saint of plague and pestilence. Part of the ceremony involved town people lining up to kiss relics of Saint Rocco. Interestingly enough, Zamora had one of the highest death tolls in Spain. Normally church bells would ring when someone died but they had to stop because bells tolling day and night for weeks on end was kind of a bummer.
Not long after, one of the local nuns died from influenza. The Mother Superior of the church held a funeral, being vocal about hoping for a large crowd. Not very many people showed up to the rally…I mean funeral. The local newspaper told the town they sucked for not showing up. Forsomefuckingreason Bishop Álvaro y Ballano declared the funeral, “one of the most significant victories Catholicism has obtained”. After the virus decimated Zamora, Ballano was given a medal for all his hard work.
There were no treatments for the flu and people weren’t 100% sure on how it spread. Flu vaccines wouldn’t exist until the mid-1940’s. Some fucking idiot had the bright idea to use disinfectants to fight the virus. People were putting hydrogen peroxide up their noses and shop keepers would spray shoppers with various cleaning agents as they entered stores. Other notable efforts included injecting colloidal silver and the unfortunately still popular bloodletting. Medical experts suggested people take 30 grams of Aspirin a day to ward off the flu. That’s about 10 times more Aspirin than you need for Aspirin toxicity, which causes a buildup of fluid in your lungs, leading to bacterial pneumonia; which is about the last goddamn thing you need during a global influenza pandemic.
In September of 1918 Philadelphia was planning a Liberty Loan Parade to drum up support for the war effort so they could sell war bonds. Certain members of the community questioned whether or not this was a good idea on account of you know, people dying all over the place. Philadelphia Public Health Director Wilmer Krusen thought a lockdown would scare people so he assured everyone it was “just like the flu” and said he would, “Confine this disease to it’s present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatsoever is felt.”
2 sailors died the next day.
Krusen said they died of the regular flu and, “From now on the disease will decrease.”
14 soldiers died the next day.
200,000 people showed up for the parade. On a positive note, they blew the fundraising goal out of the water by raising six million dollars.
The next day 118 people reported being ill.
The next day Krusen said the Spanish Flu was present in the civilian population.
The next day every hospital bed in Philadelphia was full.
A week later 4,500 people were dead.
In six weeks 12,000 people were dead.
Over 17,000 people died in Philadelphia. Priests drove horse drawn carts down the road so people could bring out their dead. There weren’t enough gravediggers to bury the deceased so people had to start burying their own relatives. The Liberty Loan Parade became known as the deadliest parade in American history, which makes me wonder what the fuck was going on with parades back then that they were ranking them by deadliness.
Saint Louis shut the fuck down. They instituted strict guidelines for doctors reporting cases, as well as contact tracing. The St Louis Tuberculosis Society went to all the factories and gave speeches about how to keep safe. They also canceled the Liberty Loan Parade.
St. Louis had one of the lowest death rates in the country.
In two years the H1N1 strain of influenza that would become known as The Spanish Flu killed 20-100 million people. I know that’s a pretty big spread but suffice to say that about a third of every motherfucker on Earth died. There was no cure or vaccine for the Spanish Flu. It just burned through the population until everyone had either got sick, lived, died, or managed to hide until it burned it’s self out. So when you hear someone talk about herd immunity, that’s what that looks like.
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”