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Comparing COVID-19 and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemics

Posted at 10:04 AM, Apr 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-04 12:19:45-04

For the majority of people in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first large scale health crisis of their lifetime - but it’s not the first for Montana.

In late 1918 – World War I was coming to an end, but an even deadlier danger was emerging.

From January 1918 to December 1920, the Spanish Flu pandemic infected a quarter of the world’s population and killed 50 million people world-wide. In the United States, the pandemic killed nearly half a million people. Montana lost nearly five thousand lives to the virus, with one of the highest mortality rates in the country.

It’s unclear exactly where the 1918 virus originated, but it’s commonly called the Spanish Flu because media attention picked up after it passed through Spain and France. Spain was neutral during World War I, and didn’t practice information censorship.

The first American cases of Spanish Flu occurred in military camps and cities in the mid-west and quickly spread to the rest of the country. One of the key differences between the coronavirus and Spanish Influenza – is who it affects.

While COVID-19 primarily puts seniors and immuno-compromised people at risk, the Spanish flu targeted young, seemingly healthy males.

Pierce Mullen is an emeritus professor of history at Montana State, with specialization in the history of science. Mullen has written articles and published papers on the effects of the Spanish Flu in Montana and explained to MTN News the science behind the high male mortality rate in 1918.

“Men could absorb a much greater infective load and that flu multiplied really, really fast,” Mullen said. “And when it got into the lungs, they triggered what is now called a cytokine storm. In other words, your very powerful immune system over mobilized and filled your lungs with dead cell structures which caused the immense obstruction and, and death.”

Put simply: “A healthy man would go to work at 7:30 in the morning and be dead by 5:30 in the evening.”

With an influx of young families migrating to the treasure state at the start of the century, Montana was hit particularly hard. A lack of global communication and wartime censorship – there was almost no warnings for the 1918 pandemic. By the time restrictions were in place, it was almost too late. And thought people were dying by the dozen every day, there was an outcry when leaders ordered businesses, bars and churches to shut down.

“Mom and pop grocery stores were the staple of every neighborhood, and they absolutely refused to close. Not only because they would lose their income, but the neighborhood was heavily dependent on them,” Mullen said. “They didn’t have Costco, they didn’t have Target, they didn't have Albertsons or Safeway. And there was horrendous resentment against being closed. And this was at the local level. The state didn't close you down, your local mayor and city council did.”

The fear in 2020 is that the coronavirus will overwhelm the American medical system. That was a reality in 1918, with much less advanced healthcare facilities ill-equipped to handle a mass influx of patients.

There were not the major big hospitals that you and I are familiar with. These were often reused houses, two- or three-story houses,” Mullen said. “So what we'd call hospitals and what they called hospitals were really quite different. Campuses in Bozeman and Missoula had to set up makeshift wards with cots and tents.”

Ultimately – Montana, the country and the world emerged from the 1918 pandemic and began to rebuild. Mullen says people are not truly safe from the novel coronavirus until herd immunity is reached after enough of the population is infected or a vaccine is created.

The world eventually recovered after the 1918 Pandemic, but not before the virus took an incredible toll. It took a monumental effort to dig out from under the loss of life and routine.

“It's uncomfortable, yes, and economically devastating. But if you save your life now, you can probably save your economy and your community later,” Mullen said. “You have to put politics aside. It's going to take an enormous amount of work to save the economy in these smaller towns which are already hurting. You really need to make a joint effort and have everybody contribute to the greater good.”