Saturday

2nd Mar 2024

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • '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.

Spain prays to reach peak of pandemic this week

This week Spain hopes it may see the longed-for 'peak' of the epidemic - if measures taken so far prove to be effective in the fight against the coronavirus. Yet the government is set to extend lockdown until 11 April.

Column

Trying to think straight about coronavirus

Clear-headed thinking becomes nearly impossible under this relentless barrage of bad news and apocalyptic analysis, Ferraris writes - a state of mind he describes as "cogito interruptus".

'Outdated' rules bar MEP from entering plenary with child

During a plenary session in Strasbourg, an MEP was denied access to the chamber because he was carrying his young child, due to unforeseen circumstances. The episode shows parliament's rules need to be updated, several MEPs told EUobserver.

Opinion

Why are the banking lobby afraid of a digital euro?

Europeans deserve a digital euro that transcends the narrow interests of the banking lobby and embodies the promise of a fairer and more competitive monetary and financial landscape.

Opinion

For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive

The EU Commission's 2022 CSDDD proposal did not include provisions incorporating "conflict due diligence", they were added, after the Russian invasion, by the European Parliament and Council into the final directive text — for Ukraine's sake, vote for it.

Latest News

  1. EU docks €32m in funding to UN Gaza agency pending audit
  2. 'Outdated' rules bar MEP from entering plenary with child
  3. Commission plays down row over Rwanda minerals pact
  4. EU socialists set to anoint placeholder candidate
  5. Why are the banking lobby afraid of a digital euro?
  6. Deepfake dystopia — Russia's disinformation in Spain and Italy
  7. Putin's nuclear riposte to Macron fails to impress EU diplomats
  8. EU won't yet commit funding UN agency in Gaza amid hunger

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us