Although the Spanish Flu Project fell through this did not prevent me from preparing a blog post on the subject, as I found the topic rather fascinating even before the current pandemic. Having done further research on the matter I concluded that the parallels between Corrie O’Ronah and the Spanish Flu are even more striking than I previously assessed. Many people don’t know, but whether the virus originated from China is unclear in both cases. The Spanish Flu having claimed – according to some estimates – up to 100 million lives – which my dear friend Jerry DeGroot points out is more than either world wars – it is fascinating to study how it remains overshadowed to this day by atrocities that were consciously inflicted by people. Surely, if the Spanish Flu happened in any other century than the 20th, it would have been the single greatest tragedy of the period.
That said, a pandemic like the Spanish Flu would have been impossible without the interconnected and indeed, very transnational global context of the early 20th century. The Black Death™ or Justinian’s Plague killed off higher percentages of the population than Spanish Flu, but took place in a world much less interconnected than post-WWI Europe and it is modern research that shows that those pandemics were Eurasian phenomena, as opposed to the contemporary perceptions of it. The Spanish Flu was perceived – and rightly so – as a global health crisis, and I would argue as the first one of such kind. Soldiers returning from the front, travelling on crowded vessels across the oceans, and en masse unsanitary conditions across the trenches, no mans lands and mass graves of Europe, as well as the general lack of orderly procedures facilitated – if not caused – the Spanish Flu pandemic, the spread of which was further perpetuated by a global network of trade, migration, and other forms of interaction.
However, the above-detailed interconnectivity of nations on a global scale also bred enquiries into where this deadly virus originated from. Accusations were made, boogeymen were designated, and old frustrations and prejudices were resurfacing, hinting at yet another one in the striking line of analogies with COVID-19.
The first of these nations, on which particular blame was placed was the titular country of Spain, indicated in the name we use to refer to the Spanish Flu. While we know for sure with the power of hindsight that Spain was most definitely not the origin of the virus, it is quite intriguing to evaluate why it was designated as such. There was a sentiment in the newly forming global community, which slowly evolved into the League of Nations by 1920, that the blame must not be placed on countries that were belligerents in the preceding conflict, which was then perceived as ‘the war to end all wars’. Thereby it was neutral Spain that reached the top in the long list of countries involved in the litany of theories revolving around the origins of the pandemic. This is not to say that at the time other theories weren’t present, in fact quite the contrary was true. In addition, there also seemed to be solid clues as to why Spain could have been the country of origin for this killing export. However, as we all know, those who control the language wield quite the power. And as such, it was a matter of diplomacy, rather than that of science that the terminology of the Spanish Flu was determined in the way it was.
Moving on, the next suspect on the list was France, and more precisely the Brest area that attracted particular attention in regard to the suspected origin of
coronavirus the Spanish Flu. Perhaps it requires little explanation for why the masses of soldiers living right next to the corpses of their dead comrades bred suspicion as to the origin of the virus. Furthermore, even in the direct wake of the war, there were myriad – from a current perspective – necessary health regulations sacrificed at the altar of returning to normalcy. Soldiers were crammed together in barracks at a scale never seen before, and as they returned home they scattered the germs accumulated across the frontlines all over the world. Australian, New Zealander, and Indian, as well as Maghreb and Sub-Saharan soldiers all fought in the trenches of Old Europe, and many of them weren’t here to stay. In fact, their travels back and forth across the oceans, along with the mass transport of around one million American troops probably served as primary conduits for the spread of the pandemic.
Another theory, and indeed the one we hold to be the most likely one today was that the Spanish Flu originated from a military pig farm near a military base in Kansas. Given that we now know that the pandemic was a strain of H1N1, which often originate from swine, we have the scientific tools to be able to tell based on patterns in the spread of the virus and in the international reception that Patient 0 likely ate from a communal meal at that military base, infected by a mutated pig that carried the virus.
However, given the current state of world affairs, the most striking theory is that the virus originated from China. Given the early 20th century’s constitutional malarky and War Lord Period in China, the documentation of the pandemic lagged behind. Indeed, an unusually mild flu season was reported in China in 1918, which might have been the result of poor documentation on the account of the the above-mentioned reasons. However, many at the time, as well as the renowned epidemiologist Claude Hannoun in 1993 speculated that the virus must have originated from China, then spreading to the United States, and then Brest, with the Allied forces being the primary carriers for the disease. This was reinforced by the notion of the mild flu season in China, which Hannoun argued could have been the caused by the Chinese population building up immunity to the Spanish Flu, and unknowingly carrying it to America and Europe. This theory seemed to be supported by the tens of thousands of Chinese workers behind the frontlines in Western Europe. Humphries in 2014 also unearthed documents suggesting the spread of a respiratory disease in China in 1917, feeding into the theory of early immunity. A year later in 2016 however, further evidence was found of the circulation of the Spanish Flu in Europe even before the Chinese records. Thereby it is unlikely that China was the origin of the Spanish Flu.
In conclusion, many speculations can be made as to how relatively recent accusations regarding the spread of the Spanish Flu feed into anti-Chinese sentiment in the West today, and as well as to how the current Chinese regime deflects blame based on these recent findings being false. With the current pandemic going on however, it would be unwise and irresponsible to articulate said speculations. What is relevant from a transnational standpoint is that in the globally interconnected age if a pandemic shows up on the radar, the community will start pointing fingers. And where those fingers are pointed have a lasting effect on how we preserve the memory of such tragedies.