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16th May 2021

Interview

How Europe coped with pandemic 100 years ago

  • 'Piazza d'Italia' by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, who lived in Rome in 1918 (Photo: sothebys.com)

An untreatable virus killing thousands each day, lack of international coordination, little reliable information, and some people flouting self-isolation - that is what happened in the 1918 'Spanish flu'.

The flu killed 50m people worldwide in events with parallels to the 2020 viral outbreak.

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  • 'Self portrait with Spanish flu' by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (Photo: nasjonalmuseet.no)

"Rather like coronavirus, it [Spanish flu] popped up in various places simultaneously - that's one of the features of a viral pandemic," said Catharine Arnold, a British academic, who wrote a book on the subject called Pandemic 1918.

At its height, 1,200 people were dying each week in Paris alone.

When The Leviathan, a US troop ship, landed in France in October 1918, 90 infantrymen had died crossing the Atlantic.

Hundreds of people were also dying every day in Italy and Spain in March 2020.

The Spanish flu hit relatively harder because populations were smaller a century ago.

But there was an even bigger difference between 1918 and 2020 - World War One.

The 1918 pandemic did not cause hysteria because the war had already killed 20m people, numbing public opinion.

Some medical staff did feel overwhelmed.

"For many nurses, seeing patients succumb to Spanish flu instead of their combat injuries was the last straw. One nurse, seeing a soldier's body go past draped with a flag, said she never wanted to see a [British] Union [Jack] flag again," Arnold told EUobserver in an interview.

But for most people, "Spanish flu was just another thing to put up with", she said.

Meanwhile, there was no coordination on the pandemic between the US or its European allies because they were too busy fighting Germany, putting into perspective the EU and transatlantic divisions of today.

"I'm not aware of a real concerted effort in the face of Spanish flu by European countries," Arnold said.

"It was more a case of dealing with this additional threat, on top of the horrors of the biggest global conflict Europe had ever encountered ... I just can't overestimate the impact of the war," Arnold said.

Defence of realm

But war aside, 1918-2020 parallels abound.

The EU foreign service recently raised the alarm on Russian and Chinese disinformation on coronavirus.

And average Europeans 102 years ago also struggled to get reliable news.

"In Britain, discussion was really limited to medical journals, The Lancet and the BMJ [British Medical Journal]," Arnold said.

"That's because the authorities in Britain invoked Dora [the Defence of the Realm Act] to stop people talking about Spanish flu for as long as possible, as it was considered a threat to [wartime] morale," she said.

Spain was neutral in the war and its press was normal.

"As a result, Spanish flu and its possible causes could be freely debated in the [Spanish] newspapers of the day," Arnold said.

But the Spanish media exception itself fuelled disinformation and xenophobia because it gave the misleading impression that the flu had originated there.

"'Spanish flu' got its name as it was first identified in Spain, but it wasn't Spain's fault in any way. It got there via army camps in France," Arnold said.

"The British called Spanish flu 'The Spanish Lady', personified as a gypsy flamenco dancer with a death's head in cartoons and drawings," she noted.

"The implication was that Spanish flu, like Spanish gypsy ladies, was free with its favours and infected anyone who came near it. Not very politically correct, I'm afraid," the British academic said.

Uncanny piazzas

With UK prime minister Boris Johnson testing positive for coronavirus on Friday (27 March), the 1918 flu also struck leading figures in society.

It infected German kaiser Wilhelm II and it killed Austrian painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.

It also killed French writer Guillaume Appollinaire and English composer Hubert Parry.

With no known cure, many people self-isolated.

"The empty piazzas and deserted stations in early paintings by de Chirico were uncannily suggestive of the scenes witnessed in the Spanish flu pandemic and today's coronavirus," Arnold said, referring to Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, who lived in Rome in 1918.

But as in 2020, others flouted common sense.

When Apollinaire died in November 1918, for instance, his funeral procession was accompanied by "all of literary Paris, Paris of the arts, the press," Arnold wrote in her book.

And "as it reached the corner of Saint-Germain [an area in the French capital], the funeral cortège was besieged by a crowd of noisy celebrants of the armistice [the end of WWI] - men and women with arms waving, singing, dancing, kissing, and shouting deliriously," she wrote.

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