February 7, 2023

Two Horrific, Monstrous Plagues

By John Guy LaPlante

The Spanish Flu of 1918 & The Covid-19 Pandemic of Today

How alike? / How different?

Dear Readers,

This is a first for me. I am posting you an article of special meaning to all of us. It highlights facts about the world’s very first pandemic, which was the devastating Spanish flu of 1918. Exactly a century ago.

And how that compares with and contrasts to the cataclysmic Covid-19 pandemic that we are living through today.

Why is this a first for me?

This is the very first time that I put together a blog for you that I have not authored. How come?

I did not just up and decide to research this and put it together for you.

It was accidental. I have been a reader of the Saturday Evening Post Magazine for years.

I have saved some copies. One was the issue of September / October 2018. Yes, published exactly two years ago.

I happened to thumb through it and spotted its article about the Spanish flu.

It was written by Laura Spinney, a science journalist and author.

She did a great job. Much of what you are now reading here was her work. She deserves the credit.

I admit that I tweaked it a little bit, mostly to shorten it, and have added a few other things that I thought were important.

Here is how she started her article: “One hundred years ago, in 1918, the world experienced the greatest tidal wave of death, possibly in the whole of human history.”

A bit further: “The first wave of the Spanish flu struck in the spring of that year. But there was nothing Spanish about it. It’s just that Spain was the one that tracked its progress.”

The disease claimed between 50,000,000 and 100,000,000 lives, according to current estimates, or between 2.5 and 5% of the global population.

It was a true “pandemic,” sweeping through a whole country or several countries.

As opposed to “epidemic,” which affects a category of people within a limited geographic area.

Now who, less than two years ago, would have any thought, any idea, any crystal ball that right now we’d be suffering through the worst pandemic the world has ever experienced, with no end in sight?!

I decided that it would be interesting, in fact, important, to see how the two events

were similar in some ways and yet different.

And what you are reading now is the result. Consider it a modest public service, so to speak.

The first wave of the Spanish flu struck in the spring of 1918.

But it was flu, and flu, as we know, is transmitted by human breath – by coughs and sneezes.

The flu is highly contagious and spreads most easily when people are packed together in high densities – and this why it is sometimes referred to as a “crowd” disease.

That first wave of the Spanish flu back in 1918 was relatively mild, not much worse than seasonal flu, but one of the second and most deadly phases of the pandemic erupted in the autumn of 1918.

People could hardly believe that it was the same disease. An alarmingly high proportion of patients died – 25 times as many as in previous flu pandemics.

Initially, victims reported the classic symptoms of flu — fever, sore throat, headache — but soon they were turning blue in the face, having difficulty breathing, even bleeding from their nose and mouth. If blue turned to black, they were unlikely to recover.

Their congested lungs were simply too full of fluid to process air, and death usually followed within hours or days.

The second wave receded toward the end of the year, but there was a third and final wave — intermediate in virulence between the other two — and early 1919.

Flu is caused by a virus but “virus” was a novel concept in1918. And most of the world’s doctors assumed they were dealing with a bacterial disease.

This meant that they were almost completely helpless against the Spanish flu.

They had no flu vaccine, no antiviral drugs, not even any antibiotics, which might have benefited against the secondary bacterial infections — in the form of pneumonia — that killed most of its victims.

Public health measures, such as the closing of public meeting places, could be effective, but even when they were imposed, it often happened too late, because influenza was not a reportable disease in 1918.

This meant the doctors were not obliged to report cases to the authorities, which in turn meant that those authorities failed to see the pandemic coming.

Yes, I repeat the disease claimed between 50 and 100 million lives, according to current estimates, or between 2.5 and 5% of the global population.

To put those numbers in perspective, World War I killed about 18 million people. World War II about 60 million.

The rates of sickness and death varied dramatically across the globe, for a host of complex reasons that epidemiologists have been studying ever since.

In general, the less well-off suffered worse — though not for the reasons eugenecists proposed — but the elites were by no means spared.

The lesson health authorities took away from the catastrophe was that it was no longer reasonable to blame individuals for catching infectious diseases, nor to treat them in isolation.

The 1920s saw many governments embrace the concept of socialized medicine – healthcare for all, delivered free at the point of delivery.

Surprise! Russia wss the first to put in place a centralized public health care system, which it funded via a state-run insurance scheme, and others in Western Europe followed suit.

The U.S. took a different route, preferring employer-based insurance schemes, but it also took measures to consolidate health care in the post-flu years.

In 1924, the Soviet government laid out specifications for the physician of the future, who would have “the ability to study the occupational and social conditions which give rise to illness and not only to cure the illness but to suggest ways to prevent it.”

This vision was gradually adopted across the world: the new medicine would be not only biological and experimental but also sociological.

Public health started to look more like it does today.

The cornerstone of public health is epidemiology — the study of patterns, causes, and effects and disease — and this now received full recognition as part of a scientific specialty.

Epidemiology requires data, and the gathering of health data became more systematic.

By 1925, for example, all U.S.states were participating in a national disease-reporting system, and the early warning apparatus that had been so lamentably lacking in 1918 began taking shape.

And yes, later, reflecting authorities’ new interest in the populations’ baseline health, U.S. citizens were subjected to the first national health survey.

Many countries created or revamped health ministries in the 1920s.

This was a direct result of the pandemic, during which public health leaders had been either left out of cabinet meetings entirely or reduced to pleading for funds and powers that did not yet exist.

But there was also recognition of the need to coordinate public health at the international level since clearly, contagious diseases didn’t respect borders.

The year 1919 saw the opening, in Vienna, of an international bureau for fighting epidemics — a forerunner of today’s World Health Organization.

WHO head into existence and 1946, eugenics had been disgraced, and the new organization’s constitution enjoyed a thoroughly egalitarian approach to wealth.

It stated that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

That philosophy would not eliminate the threat of flu pandemics — WHO has known three in its lifetime, and will surely know more — but it would transform the way human beings confronted them.

And it was born of an understanding that pandemics are a social, not an individual problem.

In that same issue, The Saturday Evening Post ran a companion article by the eminent science writer Dr. Paul de Kruif.

He wrote about “his experience with the greatest pestilence of our time and the devastation left in its wake.

“The 1918 flu pandemic came out of nowhere and spread like wildfire, burning its way through the whole world except Antarctica.

“Unlike previous flu outbreaks, this young one targeted young adults, killing so many so quickly that hospitals ran out of beds, morgues ran out of space, and cities ran out of coffins.”

What he went on to write was a graphic report of how brutally and unsparingly that pandemic terrified and decimated people with total indiscrimination. Very hard to imagine.

And In that same issue, The Saturday Evening Post’s executive editor Patrick Perry conducted a question and answer interview with a scientist who has become known to millions of us in our COVID-19 pandemic.

He happens to be our nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Our pandemic has made him famous. As a scientist. And a badly needed foil to President Trump.

That interview resulted in a detailed examination of viruses — what they are, how they work, how many there are, and what can be done about them. All explained in plain English.

Remember, this was about the flu pandemic of 1918, plus others in 1957, 1968, and 2009.

Yes, all about viruses, and the best way to fight them is to develop specific vaccines. And of course, this is why millions of us now get flu shots every year.

But aren’t there non-vaccine strategies that are effective?

 Dr. Fauci has a number of them:

— Wash your hands often and thoroughly.
— Avoid crowded places.
— Stay away from people when you’re sick.
— Keep your school children at home if they’re sick.
— Cover your mouth If you’re coughing and sneezing.

These have been preached to us so strongly that most people with smarts accept them and practice them routinely.

There are always imbeciles around.

There are two that he did not mention which he now says are critical in this pandemic of COVID-19:

— Maintain social distancing.
— And wear a mask to protect others.

I myself have two more urgent suggestions:

1. Dump Trump in the upcoming election!
2. And pray we’ll have an effective vaccine soon!

I’m sure many of you would go along with me.

Now to get personal. I am especially vulnerable to COVID-19. I am in my ’90s. And less than a year ago I was diagnosed with double pneumonia.

A month ago I was tested and found negative. Still, I could become positive tomorrow.

It is absolutely mind-boggling how Covid-19 has decimated us.

I checked the latest statistics a couple of hours ago. I have rounded them off.

Here in the U.S., we have had 6,726,000 cases and 198,000 deaths.

And think of the countless ways this has affected our lifestyle. Putting people out of work. Making it impossible for them to pay the mortgage or the rent or the car payment.

Unable to afford a dentist or a lawyer or an auto mechanic. Keeping students out of grade school up through university, plus teachers and professors.

How many people are not affected by a hardship of some kind?

And here is the big, grim bottom line.

Globally we have racked up 30,407,000 cases and 952,000 deaths.

Globally is the correct word. The list of countries hit is long. And getting longer.

It’s been a nightmare. Usually, people wake up from a nightmare. There’s no waking up from this one.

But how glad I am that I saved that wonderful Saturday Day Evening Post magazine of September / October 1918!

I’ve enjoyed plunging into all this.


  1. Joan Perrone says

    I am so afraid of the upcoming elections. I read books by Mary Trump, John Bolton, Michael Cohen, and Stepanie (can’t remember her last name, but she was a personal friend of Milania Trump.) If anyone would read those books, then would NEVER vote for Trump. He is a sociopath, mobster, thief, crook, non caring, narcistic, lying, cheating, bullying, racist, and dictatorial individual. He started out as a dictator wanna-be. I believe that he is now a fascist, and is on his way to becoming a Nazi. I also wonder if he is the AntiChrist that has been written so much about in the past.

    I pray that he is voted out, because another 4 years of his presidency will surely break our democratic system for a very long time, if not permanently. He appeals to the worst in people

  2. John, loved your article, but I am disappointed in your politicizing. The simple mention of Trump was totally unnecessary and misguided. Many people appear to be gripped with trumphysteria, blaming everything on one conspicuous and in some ways flawed individual.

    1. Trump did not close or open, or lockdown any state or municipality. (Helo, he doesn’t have the authority. Remember there was a legal spat about this, and the governors successfully claimed the legal power on this matter.) And the feds did take actions and provided guidelines going forward.
    2. Everything Trump knew, the governors of our 50 states knew concurrently.
    3. The governors reacted, as they saw fit, based on their state situation, as well as many experts of their own. The governors are in charge of health/epidemic issues in their state, they have the power and authority to lockdown, open, or ignore COVID issues!!!!! Lets assume that they are all smarter and more virtuous than Mr. Trump. WHAT HAVE THEY DONE AND WHAT ARE THEY DOING? Where are the millions freaking out with criticism and venom over their action and inaction?
    4. The European union is a big place, with everybody in charge, smarter than Trump. Are they not struggling as well as the US? Have the various countries in Europe not responded differently from each other? Have they all “licked this thing”? Or does every European leader get their marching orders from Mr. Trump and that is why this plague is still dogging them??
    5. There are key statistics that show the US is not doing all that badly, based on realities we faced. But thrumphate absorbed minds can’t admit there is any such a thing, as a relatively modest death rate per case, or that the feds marshaled many extraordinary things within our means. Are folks out there, that think we can have 330 000 000 covid tests 3 times per week in this country….and that will solve everything?
    6. In the broader picture, a rational person will recognize that there is no such thing as a nationwide “shut down”. The hospitals have to stay open, they need electricity, the bus drivers need to bring people to the power plant, grocery store, the sanitation garage, etc. About 80% of the workforce is basically “essential”, to prevent chaos and starvation! Therefore, a substantial number of people are out there and are more exposed. But our society can not – NOT take these risks.
    7. The public is very prone to panic. Just note the pointless run on toilet paper. Did we avoid a devastating run on food, banks, gold, guns? Yes we did.
    8. It is sad to note, how intoxicated people are with trumphate. We live in a time of deep division, fueled by many things, much much bigger than some real-estate/reality tv show guy. It is childish to boil anything down to Trump. Yes he does fuel the newsmediapeddling bonanza, where both left and right are guilty of taking the bait like stupid-insatiable piranhas. We need to take a long deep breath and carefully examine how much our emotional and rational side is engaged.

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