A century ago, Europe, the Middle East and Africa were engaged in the first truly global conflict.  In 1918, the final year of World War I, the most severe flu pandemic in recorded history broke out.  It infected one-third of the world’s population and claimed at least 50 million lives—more people in 15 months than AIDS has killed in 40 years and more than the bubonic plague killed in a century. What have we learned that might help today’s leaders prepare citizens for the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19)—a new strain of influenza that has rapidly spread to every continent except Antarctica?

by Cathy Salter

Lesson One:  Learn from history.  After three years of brutal warfare, British, French and German troops were mired in mud in a deadly stalemate along the Western Front. On August 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.  As American troops joined Allied forces in France, fresh recruits reported for training at U.S. military posts and camps around the country.

In March 1918, the first case of influenza was reported at Camp Funston in Ft. Riley, KS.  Unlike the seasonal flu, the 1918 strain was fatal for many otherwise healthy adults aged 15-34.  For infected soldiers living in close quarters at military training posts; for recruits transported across the Atlantic on crowded troop transports; and for soldiers weakened by fighting in the trenches, the flu epidemic was catastrophic.  Tragically, President Woodrow Wilson and countries involved in the war censored press coverage of the epidemic in order to curb fear and panic.   Reportage about the flu came instead from Spain, a neutral country during the conflict.  Thus, the disease was referred to as ‘Spanish influenza’.

On September 5, the Massachusetts Department of Health alerted newspapers that “an epidemic is underway,” and that “unless precautions are taken, the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population.”  Soon, Congress approved a $1 million fund to enable the U.S. Public Health Service to recruit physicians and nurses to deal with the epidemic, but by then, medical personnel were in short supply

June 23, 2019 Michael T. Kurtz published an article in LA Progressive entitled “Spanish Flu, Woodrow Wilson, and My Family.” “In Europe,” he said, “the flu was devastating….70,000 American soldiers were sick.  In some units the flu killed 80% of the men.” General Pershing was desperate for reinforcements.  President Wilson—against his chief physician’s advice—sent thousands of troops, some likely infected, on crowded transport ships to the frontlines in France, thus contributing to the spreading of the virus across the world.  

For Kurtz, Wilson’s policy of secrecy about the epidemic is personal. “To soldiers and civilians alike,” he wrote, “what was attacking them was not an ordinary influenza, but they had no answers.”  As a result, his grandmother died.   

The epidemic is part of my family’s history as well.  In September 1918, my grandfather, a major in the U.S. Cavalry, reported to Camp Sherman, Ohio where many troops awaiting deployment to France were already sick or infected. Because of the situation, he was quarantined at a temporary ‘community house’ for families and Army officers run by my grandmother’s uncle. While there, he met my grandmother who’d been sent to stay with her uncle due to a flu scare at her boarding school in Columbus, Ohio, fifty miles away. 

The 1918-19 global influenza pandemic lasted just 15 months. Fortunately, both of my grandparents survived.  But by November 11, 1918 when the Armistice ending WW I was signed, it had killed more people than the global conflict, among them an estimated 675,000 Americans. 

Lesson Two:  Tell the truth.  According to John M. Barry’s 2017 Smithsonian article, “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America,” communities across the country being hit by the pandemic were not told the truth about the influenza threat.  America’s leaders failed to properly educate the public about its real health dangers in order to focus national attention on the war effort. 

Barry’s article concludes with this question: “What is the most important lesson from 1918?”  His answer is: “Tell the truth.” As the world faces the COVID-19 threat today, people must be able to trust their leaders.  “Whatever preparedness plans are put forth to control the pandemic,” he warns “its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.”

The past has shown that our government must be forthright about the severity of today’s COVID-19 influenza threat.  It’s also imperative that leaders trust science and support efforts to improve pandemic readiness.   They must expand both research on anti-viral drugs and global efforts to find a “universal vaccine” in order to keep ahead of future epidemics.  Working together, leaders can help avoid fear and panic by keeping the public informed.

Influenza is deadly serious.  It’s time we treat it as a national and global priority. 

Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.