Back in 1918, a previously unknown influenza crept over the world, infecting almost one-third of the planet’s human population. The world was a chaotic mess at the time, with several European nations and much of the Middle East at war. World War I was the planet’s first major-scale international conflict, and it had been going on for four years. The nations involved, including the U.S., practiced heavy censorship, to the point where tiny, neutral Spain was the only nation brave enough to report the mysterious disease wiping out almost 50 million people.
Spain’s willingness to address the disease is the only reason the ailment is called the “Spanish influenza” today. The U.S. and its allies claimed Spain as the country of origin with a classic “he who smelt it dealt it” policy because nations are known for their maturity and intelligence. This was despite the disease very likely originating in the U.S. and following U.S. soldiers across Europe and the world.
COVID-19 shares many similarities with the Spanish flu. This includes inept and dishonest world leaders misinterpreting the disease for selfish or political reasons. A hasty and racist presumption on Spanish flu’s origin was only the first misconception fluttering around the disease, and international leaders initially downplayed its seriousness. At the very onset of the 1918 pandemic, Western newspapers and public officials immediately proclaimed the flu not to be a serious threat. The Illustrated London News, for example, wrote that the 1918 flu was “so mild as to show that the original virus is becoming attenuated by frequent transmission.” British officials like Sir Arthur Newsholme, (the British government’s chief medical officer, no less), called any push to address the flu unpatriotic. We witnessed former President Donald Trump make the same effort to play down the damage last year when he falsely assured voters that COVID-19 would simply “disappear.” “One day, it’s like a miracle—it will disappear,” Trump told the world. He also claimed the pandemic to be “fading away,” when it wasn’t, that authorities were getting it “under control” when they couldn’t, and that the deadly little virus was “totally harmless,” when it certainly wasn’t. Trump also claimed the U.S “now (has) the lowest fatality (mortality) rate in the world,” when in fact the U.S. death toll was significantly higher than that of other countries.
Trump’s attempts to downplay the virus slammed against the reality of COVID-19 proving potentially deadlier than the 1918 pandemic. To be sure, the 1918 pandemic killed 50 million, while as of early March 3, 2021, 2.5 million people had died of COVID-19. However, many of the Spanish flu’s victims died of causes not directly associated with the disease, but due to bad hygiene and nonexistent public health and safety protocols. The 2020 virus, comparatively, has a much more effective attack and kill rate, according to researchers. Compared to Spanish flu, COVID-19 is genetically capable of knocking out a bigger portion of the planet, partially due to its highly contagious nature, its ability to attack multiple organs and tissue, and the more mobile nature of the world’s modern population. The only thing stopping it from truly squashing us, apparently, is modern medicine.
Not to say we didn’t do our best to help the virus, according to experts, especially here in the U.S.
“The U.S. government didn’t react either quickly or adequately back in January when the first confirmed case of coronavirus was found,” according to Harvard Global Health Institute Senior fellow Olga Jonas. “Governments have to act early in the outbreak because the contagion spreads exponentially; two infect four, four infect 16, and 16 infect 84, and so on. There were serious lapses at the beginning, like the lack of capacity for necessary testing. When testing began in the United States, it was already too late. In an outbreak, every day counts.”
It’s the U.S.’s failure to act quickly that marks another unfortunate similarity between the Spanish flu and COVID-19. A comparison of infection numbers in Korea and the U.S. paints a dismal picture. South Korea and the U.S. shared their first confirmed case on the same day, yet, Korea only suffered 10,000 cases and about 200 deaths. The U.S., meanwhile, hit a milestone of a half-million deaths on February 22, 2021. COVID-19 was behind the Spanish flu’s death count by only 175,000 Americans, despite the benefit of our modern medicine. The U.S. suffered a ridiculous mortality rate of approximately 0.05%, compared to Korea, and this has everything to do with how Korea slapped bans on mass gatherings, pushed extensive testing, contact tracing, and isolation and quarantining of the infected or those suspected of being infected. The U.S., meanwhile, had a president who refused to even wear a mask, much less impose nationwide bans that could hurt his precious economy.
The former president’s lies about the disease bring up another obvious comparison between COVID-19 and the 1918 pandemic: its politicization. Trump desperately needed to downplay the threat of COVID-19 because people like Trump need to convey strength at all times to win a particular cadre of voters. His unending pursuit of strength is the same reason he praises international murderers like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi for saying unkind things about him. It is the reason he praises Russian despot Vladamir Putin and offered a plane ride to brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It’s also the reason he compares his opponents to children, and why he made a melodramatic gesture of yanking off his mask and hiding his apparent illness days after contracting COVID-19 himself. Suffering disease is a kind of weakness to people like Trump, who run on strength. In so doing, he made wearing a mask a political issue among his mostly-white followers, to the point where far-right loons like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) began appropriating feminist slogans like “My body, my choice” while protesting wearing them.
Trump’s manhood-drenched political opposition to masks and quarantining went a step further by complicating national efforts to contain the virus, and his childish chest-beating looks familiar to anybody who studies the anti-mask movement of 1918. Anti-mask leagues formed in opposition to anti-flu efforts in many big cities and communities at the time. Even a group of well-known public figures in San Francisco formed the “Anti-Mask League,” which held a public meeting with more than 2,000 attendees. Masks, it turned out, were considered uncomfortable and entirely too “feminine” for some people. Experts have noticed that toxic, misplaced manhood appears to keep rearing its ugly, stupid head and trying to kill us.
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox teaches U.S. and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University. Rabinovitch-Fox told Lighthouse she is not surprised that gender is central to the debates around the pandemic, both in 1918 and today.
“The ‘macho’ culture, and its counter of ‘weakness’ in the form of mask-wearing was very central both to the image Trump was trying to convey, and the militaristic sentiments in 1918,” Rabinovitch-Fox said.
This could have a connection to studies showing that women-led nations fared proportionately better under COVID-19 than the U.S. and other macho-moronic countries. An analysis of 194 nations, conducted by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, revealed that women-led nations like Taiwan, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, and Germany handled the disease considerably better because they were willing to admit there was a problem and deal with it by locking down early. Women-led nations adopted “proactive and coordinated policy responses” early on and suffered half as many deaths on average as those led by men, according to the results.