OT: Pandemic 1918

“Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History,” by Catharine Arnold, St. Martins Press, NY, 2018. This 357-page hardback tells of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The author features observations from newspapers of the time.

The origin of the flu is unknown. It appeared first in Europe but became more severe in the US especially in army Camp Funston, at Ft. Riley Kansas, built in 1917. Flu usually attacks the oldest and youngest, but Spanish flu was especially severe among young adults. Lungs filled with fluid; many gasped for air and turned blue drowning in their own fluids. It was known as The Spanish Lady or sometimes Three Day Fever or the 333 flu. After exposure, it took three days to develop symptoms, three days of severe illness, and three days to recover. But some rebounded after a few weeks. Initially the medical description was Pyrexia (fever) of Unknown Origin, or PUO.

The death of young adults is attributed to a cytokine storm. The body’s immune system over reacted resulting in death.

This was before antibiotics or even sulfa drugs. The only defenses were quarantine and masks. The illness spread easily when people assembled in large groups. Prisons were hit especially hard. Troop ships carrying soldiers to the war in Europe spread the disease. Even celebrations of the end of the war resulted in a surges in cases. The disease was global. German soldiers suffered. Flu is thought to have delayed at least one German attack. Soldiers suffered in the trenches on both sides of the line. Of 100,000 US casualties in World War I, 40,000 were victims of Spanish flu.

Scientists were familiar with bacterial diseases and the vaccines used to treat them. At the time viruses were unknown. Methods used to trap bacteria were ineffective. An early report found a bacteria, Pfeiffer’s bacillus, thought to be the cause. That diverted some research and proved incorrect.

Much later efforts were made to find the virus in buried bodies. Eventually success concluded it was H1N1, a virus in the bird flu family.

Some parts of the story are especially grim. In some homes all residents had died. At its worst victims collapsed on the streets hemorrhaging from the lungs and nose. Children starved because their parents could not care for them. Men murdered their children for fear they would starve. In New York, Spanish Lady made orphans of over 600 children. In Philadelphia, 700 died the week of October 5; 2600 the following week; 4500 the third week. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Forty nurses fell sick. After 850 phone company employees were sick, the company only handled necessary calls. Undertakers were overwhelmed. Finding workers to pick up bodies was a problem. Bodies were not picked up for days.

The disease spared no one. Future president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken as he returned from a fact finding tour in France. On arrival in New York, he was so weak he was carried off the ship on a stretcher. He took a month to recover.

The book was written before the arrival of Covid. Lessons from 1918 informed methods used to control Covid in the early days. Until vaccines arrived it was mostly masks and quarantine (or confinement to home).

This is a highly readable telling of the story. The text is not very technical. Its an informative read. References, photos, index.


My grandmother died in that epidemic when my mother was around age 5. They lived in New York City.

No mention of economic effects during or after? Although there was nothing like the tracking of economic activity that we have today, some have tried to analyze what happened from the data that is available:

The researchers estimate that in the typical country, the pandemic reduced real per capita GDP by 6 percent and private consumption by 8 percent, declines comparable to those seen in the Great Recession of 2008–2009. In the United States, the flu’s toll was much lower: a 1.5 percent decline in GDP and a 2.1 percent drop in consumption.

The decline in economic activity combined with elevated inflation resulted in large declines in the real returns on stocks and short-term government bonds. For example, countries experiencing the average death rate of 2 percent saw real stock returns drop by 26 percentage points. The estimated drop in the United States was much smaller, 7 percentage points.

Social and Economic Impacts of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

In other words: severe recession and/or depression in some countries, a hit to the US economy on the order of what happened in 2008 - probably because the Fed was too young and too timid to do Munich of anything. It also came on the heels of the ending of World War I, which generally means a retrenchment of the economy anyway from military to civilian production.

So lessons learned this time? Too long for a post such as this, I’ll let the economic historians have at it, and hopefully there won’t be another for the next 100 years.

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