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What we can learn from the Spanish flu

Susanne Spröer db
April 27, 2020

What will our world be like once the COVID-19 pandemic has died down? The history of the Spanish flu and current futorology research provide some clues.

USA Spanische Grippe 1918
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

The first time I heard about the Spanish flu was from my grandmother. Her mother, my great-grandmother, fell ill in 1918 when my grandma was four years old. She survived with a severe heart condition. All the same, she had two more children. She remained bedridden until her death and, as a young girl, my grandmother took care of her father and younger siblings for years. The Spanish flu shaped her life, as it has affected countless people around the world.

A black-and-white family picture
The author's great-grandmother (left), circa 1917, before she fell ill with the Spanish flu

My family was partially affected by that pandemic; I otherwise wouldn't be around to write this today. But experts estimate that between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide in the three flu waves of 1918-1919.

How the Spanish flu changed the world

A comparison of the two diseases is of course misleading: what killed people back then was unknown (viruses as pathogens were not discovered until the 1930s). The genome of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus, on the other hand, was quickly decoded, and intensive research is being conducted on specific drugs and vaccines. In medical terms, we are much further advanced today than we were then.

And yet there are similarities. Then as now, a disease hurled the global community into a deep crisis. Even if we are still at the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we can ask ourselves what lessons we could learn from the history of Spanish flu for our "post-COVID-19" future.

British science journalist Laura Spinney's 2017 work, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, provides some pointers.

When I read it two years ago, I could never have imagined that soon I, too, would experience the classic disease control measures Spinney described: contact and event bans, border closures and quarantine regulations, compulsory face masks.

Whose fault is it? Fears fuel xenophobia

Just a few months ago, hearing the news about fatalities in China seemed unreal to me. But even before the wave of infection spilled over into Europe on a massive scale, the virus released its poison: under the hashtag #IAmNotAVirus, people with Asian and Chinese roots tweeted about how they were being racially insulted and treated with hostility.

Spanische Grippe und Corona
'Yellow peril'? The cover of 'Der Spiegel' from February 1, 2020Image: DW/S. Spröer

In early February, German news magazine Der Spiegel published a lurid and controversial cover story, titled "Corona virus: Made in China." The yellow lettering over the photo of a person in red protective clothing evokes associations with the pejorative term "yellow peril," a color metaphor that has been used repeatedly since the 19th century to stir up resentment against East Asian peoples, especially Chinese.

Unfortunately, the opposite is the case, too. Foreigners living in China, which currently reports few domestic cases of infection, say they are experiencing xenophobia as now they are the ones feared to be potential virus carriers.

Spanish, German or Brazilian?

When the Spanish flu broke out, people were fearful and quick to blame others. In Brazil people called the new disease the "German flu," in Senegal it was the "Brazilian flu" and in Poland it was called "Bolshevik disease."

The fact that it became known as Spanish flu is particularly unfair to the Spanish, because that is not where it originated at all, according to Laura Spinney's research — it is rather believed to have come from France, China or the US.

This flu was simply written about first in Spain, a country that had remained neutral during World War I. Newspapers in Spain were not subject to military censorship, and they reported about the outbreak of the disease in Madrid in May 1918. At the time, the flu had been raging for weeks in the Belgian and French trenches — but the name "Spanish flu" stuck.

'When the future changes its course'

Crises do not only promote fears and resentment; they can also trigger positive impulses and creative solutions.

Trend- und Zukunftsforscher Matthias Horx
Re-gnosis: Future researcher Matthias Horx 'looks back' to the presentImage: dapd

We are at a historic moment when the "future changes direction," according to Matthias Horx, a German researcher of trends and the future who works with the concept of re-gnosis, a thought experiment to illustrate what this future could look like. In contrast to prognosis, re-gnosis looks back from the future to the present.

Among the changes taking place now is the obvious push toward digital modernization, noticeable on a daily basis through our use of online communication techniques, such as video conferences, internet teaching or mobile working.

On top of that, Horx points out that "human-social intelligence" will help us master the crisis. The enforced physical distance fosters a new closeness, he says. That is true: I communicate more intensively than before via video chat or telephone with colleagues and old friends, and before we go shopping I ask our elderly neighbor — from a safe distance over the garden fence of course — whether we can bring him anything. 

If, as Horx predicts, we are able to overcome the crisis together "in solidarity and constructively despite radical restrictions," will this new friendly togetherness remain a part of our culture?

New power settings

The global community can only overcome such massive crises together, in close international cooperation. After the Spanish flu, this realization led to the founding of the Health Organization of the League of Nations, a forerunner of the WHO. Many states also realized that they, too, were responsible for public health care and not just the various welfare organizations, churches and private health care institutions.

Similarly, after the coronavirus pandemic, governments worldwide will be taking a close look at their health systems.

Mahatma Gandhi in 1925
Mahatma Gandhi survived the Spanish flu in 1918 — and went on to become the leader of the independence movementImage: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In addition, the Spanish flu experience shifted social and political power relations in many places.

In India, for example, the Indian population died in large numbers, but not the British colonial rulers. The injustices concerning medical care strengthened the resistance; Mahatma Gandhi, who himself had fallen ill with the flu, became the leader of the independence movement in 1919.

Chasm in 1920s arts scene

The consequences of the Spanish flu also became visible in the arts and culture scene. German painter Egon Schiele left one of the most shocking artistic testimonies: His painting The Family shows him, his wife Edith and their child — a child that was never born. The pregnant Edith died of the flu, as did the artist himself three days later, after painting the picture.

Egon Schiele's 'The Family'
A trio that never got to exist: Egon Schiele's 'The Family' Image: picturealliance/Fine Art Images/Heritage Images

The traumatic experiences of war and illness caused a rift in art in the 1920s that was "as violent as the division of the Red Sea in the Bible," as Laura Spinney puts it. Just two examples: In music, Arnold Schönberg created 12-tone music, a completely new musical system, while architects turned their backs on romantic Art Nouveau ornamentation and designed functional Bauhaus buildings.

Artists today have been obviously quick to react to the new pandemic and museums are collecting photos and everyday objects to document the current historical state of emergency for future generations.

COVID-19 is a zoonosis: A personal decision

We don't know yet how much the world will change "after COVID-19." Nevertheless, we can already help to make it better. At least that is what I want to try to do.

Coronavirus in Hongkong
Coronavirus street art in Hong KongImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Wallace

There is another thing both diseases have in common. They are zoonotic diseases; they were caused by viruses that are native to animals and that somehow crossed the biological barrier to humans... and mutated into deadly illnesses.

In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney looks into the impact of humans' domestication of animals through farming and how it facilitated "spillover," the term to describe when a virus jumps the species barrier into humans. Our current food production may be contributing to the increased manufacturing of new illnesses.

The Spanish flu and the novel coronavirus are by no means the only examples: the HIV virus, the 2002 SARS virus and the 2009 swine flu also originated in the animal kingdom.

So what if we stopped eating animals?

That's what I've decided to do, not only because of the coronavirus crisis, but it's another significant factor. That would be my own personal contribution to a post-coronavirus world.