Coronavirus: how they tried to curb the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918

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Woman wears flu mask during Spanish flu epidemic


It is dangerous to draw too many parallels between the coronavirus and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide.

Covid-19 is an entirely new disease, which disproportionately affects the elderly. The deadly flu strain that swept the world in 1918 tended to strike people between the ages of 20 and 30 with a strong immune system.

However, they are familiar with the measures taken by governments and individuals to prevent the spread of the infection.

Public Health England studied the Spanish flu epidemic to establish its initial coronavirus emergency plan, the key lesson being that the second wave of the disease, in the fall of 1918, was far more deadly than the first.

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Women in the Department of War take 15-minute walks to breathe fresh air every morning and evening to ward off the flu virus during the First World War, c. 1918. (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)


The country was still at war when the virus made its first recorded victim in May 1918. The British government, like many others, was trapped. He appears to have decided that the war effort was more important than preventing deaths from the flu.

The disease has spread like wildfire in crowded troop and ammunition factories, as well as on buses and trains, according to a 1919 report by Sir Arthur Newsholme for the Royal Society of Medicine.

But a “public memorandum” he wrote in July 1918 advising people to stay at home if they were sick and avoid large gatherings was buried by the government.

Sir Arthur argued that many lives could have been saved if these rules had been followed, but added: “There are national circumstances in which the primary duty is to” continue “, even where risks to health and life is at stake. “

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Women wear surgical-style cloth masks to protect themselves from the flu


In 1918, there was no treatment for the flu and no antibiotics to treat complications such as pneumonia. The hospitals were quickly overwhelmed.

There has been no central locking to curb the spread of the infection, although many theaters, dance halls, cinemas and churches have been closed, in some cases for months.

Pubs, which were already subject to restrictions on opening hours during the war, remained mostly open. The Football League and FA Cup were canceled for the war, but no effort was made to cancel other games or limit the crowd, with men’s teams playing in regional competitions and women’s football, which took attracted large crowds throughout the pandemic.

The streets of some towns and villages have been sprayed with disinfectant and some people have been wearing anti-germ masks during their daily lives.

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A telephone operator with a protective gauze


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Public health messages were confused – and, just like today, fake news and conspiracy theories abound, although the general level of ignorance of healthy lifestyles did not help.

In some factories, the rules against smoking have been relaxed, believing that cigarettes would help prevent infection.

During a debate in the House of Commons on the pandemic, Conservative MP Claude Lowther asked, “Is it a fact that a safe preventative against the flu is cocoa taken three times a day? “

Advertising campaigns and flyers have warned of the spread of the disease through coughing and sneezing.

In November 1918, the News of the World advised its readers to “wash your nose with soap and water every night and morning; force yourself to sneeze at night and in the morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear mufflers; come home from work, eat a lot of porridge. “

Daily Mirror cartoon, 1918

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Daily Mirror cartoonist captures confusion over public health messages


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No country has been spared from the 1918 pandemic, although the magnitude of its impact and government efforts to protect their populations varies considerably.

In the United States, some states have imposed quarantines on their citizens, with mixed results, while others have tried to make it mandatory to wear a mask. Cinemas, theaters and other entertainment venues have been closed across the country.

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Hairdressers took precautions to curb infection


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New York was better prepared than most American cities, having already waged a 20-year campaign against tuberculosis and, as a result, suffered a lower death rate.

However, the city’s health commissioner has come under pressure from companies to keep the premises open, especially cinemas and other entertainment venues.

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A New York City street sweeper wears a mask to help control the spread of the flu epidemic, October 1918. A New York Health Board official says it is better to be silly than dead . (Photo by PhotoQuest / Getty Images)


At the time, as today, fresh air was seen as a potential bulwark against the spread of infection, leading to ingenious solutions to maintain society.

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The court is held outside in a park due to the epidemic, San Francisco, 1918. (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)


But it has proven impossible to prevent mass gatherings in many American cities, especially places of worship.

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The congregation praying on the steps of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, where they gathered to hear mass and pray during the flu epidemic, San Francisco, California.


By the end of the pandemic, the death toll in Britain was 228,000, and a quarter of the population was reportedly infected.

Efforts to kill the virus continued for some time and people were more aware than ever of the potentially deadly nature of seasonal flu.

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A man sprays a London General Omnibus Co bus with anti-flu preparations in March 1920. (Photo by H. F. Davis / Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)


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