At the end of the first World War, as civilians and soldiers returning home were celebrating the end of a senseless and cruel carnage, another terror was lurking in the microscopic shadows. The 1918 flu pandemic, most commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, would end up taking the lives of anywhere from 50 to 100 million people around the world. The first wave of the virus was bad enough, but the second wave mutated in a way that was far more lethal and rapidly swept through communities in every country, causing untold misery and bringing governments and economies to their knees.
Although the 1918 pandemic was named the Spanish Flu, it is unlikely the virus actually originated there. In fact, many historians believe it originated in the United States, and that an American soldier might have inadvertently brought it with him to Europe during combat assignments. But the deadly catastrophe was reported by the Spanish press in a thoroughly honest manner as opposed to other nations. Spain, which was neutral in WW1, had no propaganda to advance. But within the imperialistic nations at war, obfuscation and lies ruled the day in the media. Propaganda was considered more important than giving an appearance of weakness to the enemy. This blackout may have led to the initial and rapid spread of the pathogen. But another factor of this pandemic was how officials handled warnings from healthcare professionals after the war, and how humans’ relationship with animal species may have given the virus its start in the first place. With the world reeling from the latest pandemic, Covid-19, it is worth revisiting the lessons of this tragic era.
The 1918 pandemic was not the plague that ravaged Europe centuries earlier, but it emerged in an era of modern warfare which most certainly aided in its incubation and distribution. Tens of thousands of men were housed in huge barracks, in very close quarters. The spread of disease was almost a given. Indeed, without any properties of intelligence, this virus used militarism as one of its vehicles for its deadly global rampage. The first World War was vicious. It claimed millions of lives, of soldiers and civilians alike. Chemical warfare was one of the cruelest manifestations of modern weapons. Apart from the horrific effects of agents like mustard gas, the psychological toll was enormous. Throughout history, war and militarism have been linked to disease, and it isn’t too difficult to understand why. Contrary to what is commonly held as true, war is alien to humanity, and even more so in the last 100 + years. It not only rips at the fragile chords that link humanity together, but tears apart the very fabric of the natural world on which we all depend.
Following this horrendous war, public health officials and politicians continued to downplay the severity of the rapidly spreading disease. Many wanted to puff up their reputations with parades and festivities. One particularly tragic example of this was in September of 1918 in the city of Philadelphia. 200,000 people crowded together on clogged city streets despite a looming disaster in the making. In just three days the cities hospitals were inundated with gravely ill patients. The healthcare system would collapse within a week. By the end of it at least 12,000 people in Philadelphia had perished, but this account is likely underestimated as the city simply stopped counting the dead and mass graves had to be dug to bury mountains of corpses. Children starved after their parents succumbed. Bodies lay unmoved in houses due to the fear by city workers of contagion. Doctors and nurses would drop to the floor gasping for air while caring for the dying. Sadly, we have seen similar stories being repeated recently in China and Italy. It is a textbook example of how social distancing is key to the slowing of deadly contagions.
But the 1918 pandemic also revealed how understanding human interaction with animals is key to assessing how viruses flourish and become more lethal. This was, as in the case of all coronaviruses, a zoonotic disease. Meaning, it has its origin in other species and jumped the barrier to humans due to proximity and, in all likelihood, unsanitary and cruel conditions that livestock endured. And soldiers who were malnourished thanks to limited rations and who faced the utter barbarity of war, provided the 1918 flu virus a perfect host. Today’s modern globalized world has created new avenues for the distribution of pathogens. But it is in our relationship to other species that this latest pandemic was likely born.
It would be all too easy to simply blame one market in the bustling city of Wuhan for the current unfolding catastrophe. But it would ignore the glaring and stark reality that humanity has breached crucial planetary boundaries that have altered the very net of the biosphere. With little doubt, global industrialization fueled by the avarice of capital gain has made pillage of a liveable biosphere inevitable. Deforestation, mining, mass scale fishing and other deeply damaging practices have all but erased the frontier between humans and other species. Indeed, the habitat of other species has dramatically shrunk in the last century thanks to the rapid expansion of industrialized extraction of what have become known as “resources” and any damage done referred to as “externalities.” But it has done so at an extraordinary and existential price. A myriad of species has been decimated by the rapacious activities of capital accumulation for the economic powers who seek unending profit above planetary health. But, as Covid-19 is demonstrating, it is nature that has the ultimate power to shut this machine down.
Even in its infancy, the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped the tattered and rotting cloak from the edifice of the global economic and political system. Markets are in free fall. Airports and streets are empty. Restaurants and movie theaters are shuttered. Workers have been laid off. In the US people are anxiously staying at home, fearful of any cough or headache because they are un or under-insured; and stupefied by the crumbling institutions which were supposed to protect them. It has revealed the sociopathology of world leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Benjamin Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro who are utterly incapable of addressing the urgency of this situation with even a modicum of decency or compassion; and whose solutions lie solely in increased authoritarianism or even fascism. It has demonstrated the complicity of “moderate” politicians like Emanuel Macron whose neoliberal austerity led to a dearth of medical staff and equipment, and Joe Biden who has long cozied up to Big Business and refused to consider the slightest hint of Medicare for All which might have stemmed the spread of this disease. It has shown us that the militarism of an empire is ruthless and relentless, even in a time of humanitarian disaster, as demonstrated by the ongoing sanctions against Iran and other nations. And it has revealed to us the cruelty that is routinely inflicted on animals and wildlife around the world.
But there are signs that Covid-19 is changing the way humanity looks at the way society is arranged. Some are questioning the cruelty and cost of militarism. Others are seeing how class has kept too many people in a cycle of demeaning poverty and disease, and many are demanding universal healthcare. The 1918 pandemic and a needless war of imperialism stole from humanity a young generation. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be stealing from us our elders, and many of us are beginning to see the intrinsic worth of all people and the immediate need for an end to all war. And, as the waters clear in Venice’s canals and skies become cleaner over Wuhan, there are questions emerging about how our species has treated the delicate balance between us and the natural world. Indeed, many are realizing that there is no “us and the natural world” at all. Covid-19 might be the biosphere’s last and desperate warning to our species that the status quo is a one-way ticket to extinction. The only question that remains is how we will respond to its urgent message.