The 1918 pandemic unfolded in three waves from the spring of 1918 to the winter of 1919 – ultimately killing 50 million to 100 million people globally. The first wave in the spring of 1918 was relatively mild. A majority of influenza deaths in 1918 occurred in the fall of 1918 – the second and worst wave of influenza in 1918.
Health experts expect Covid-19 infections to increase this winter because the virus that causes Covid-19 is a coronavirus, and other coronaviruses spread more in the winter. In wintery, less humid air, virus-carrying particles can linger longer in the air. In addition, our nasal membranes are drier and more vulnerable to infection in winter. And when the weather gets colder, we spend more time indoors without adequate ventilation, which means the virus is more likely to spread.
“But of course the story we’re talking about is not over yet,” Brown said.
Why the second wave was so deadly
There are several possibilities that the second wave of 1918 was so terrible, including a virus that may have mutated and patterns of human movement and behavior at that time. Winter meant that the flu also spread more and that people were indoors more often.
“My guess is that it was not great to infect humans in the spring and had to adapt,” said John M. Barry, author of “The Great Flu: The Story of the Deadly Pandemic in History.” “Then took over a mutation that was very good at infecting humans and also more virulent.”
In 1918 influenza patients often developed pneumonia rapidly and killed people the second day. Efforts for World War I had taken over, so a violent spread was facilitated by troop movements and overcrowded military camps.
Where military personnel traveled, so did the virus – resulting in influenza and pneumonia sickening 20% to 40% of the U.S. Army and Navy personnel in the fall, disrupting induction, training, and efficiency. “Influenza and pneumonia killed more U.S. soldiers and sailors during the war than enemy weapons did,” a 2010 study reported.
Six days after the first case of influenza was reported in Camp Devens, Massachusetts, cases were multiplied by 6,674 cases. When Colonel Victor C. Vaughan remembered Camp Devens, “it was shocking,” Gina Kolata, a science and medicine reporter for The New York Times, wrote in her 1918 book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic and the Search for It virus that caused it. ”
“Here, Vaughan was in the middle of the first war to use modern weapons, a war that killed young men with machine guns and gas wars, and yet it was nothing compared to this disease,” Kolata wrote.
A huge obstacle was -one lack of knowledge about the nature, behavior and severity of the virus. The pandemic came before the awareness of what a virus looked like and how to isolate and learn it. The revenge in the second wave made some people and doctors believe that they were dealing with a different disease than what had plagued them that spring.
Influenza deaths peaked in November 1918, which was possibly the deadliest month of the pandemic. A parade in Philadelphia, held on Armistice Day on November 11, gave thousands of participants the flu.
The social impact
Influenza from 1918 tore against the structure of society. About half of the deaths were among young adults aged 20 to 40 in contrast to the current pandemic, where older adults are more likely to experience serious illness and death from Covid-19.
Many events, schools and public spaces were canceled and closed. “‘The ghost of fear went everywhere, causing many family circles to reunite because the various members had nothing to do but stay at home,” Kolata wrote, quoting a Arizona newspaper.
Authorities introduced laws on masking and anti-spitting. City officials instituted punitive measures, including fines, against people who violated the rules. The provost marshal of the US Army in October canceled a draft conscription of 142,000 men despite Europe’s need for them.
The tax on adults in their prime meant many children lost one or both parents. The world lost generations of young people, and for them, the pandemic and World War I became the central experiences of their lives.
Let us now fast-forward to the year 2020. Several scientific advances have allowed us a small advantage in limiting the spread and effects of respiratory diseases such as influenza and Covid-19. Technological improvements have made it possible for scientists to see cells and viruses through electron microscopes and X-ray crystallography, which also makes it possible to take millions of pictures of them. Microbiologists can now isolate, identify and describe the structure of viruses.
Although we have coronavirus tests, one shortcoming is “that we do not have sufficient testing ability and the tests take that long,” Kolata said. “And when you start having something like coronavirus, where the symptoms can mimic the flu – high fever, chills – you can easily overwhelm the test system if the flu season really gets underway.”
Fortunately, we are not in a global war. Subsequent and many years of scientific development have taught us how respiratory diseases are spread by encounters with respiratory drops that are easy on close contact and inadequate hygiene. To be effective, however, these scientific and medical benefits require public compliance.
What we can do
Although Covid-19 cases are rising and may increase this winter, there are things we can do to stem the spread. Precautions such as physical distance, avoiding gatherings and unnecessary travel, hand washing and wearing a mask are still important.
Stocking up on groceries, medical and emergency items – responsibly and in a way that is considerate of others – can help limit trips to stores and thus reduce the chances of spreading.
In 1918, there was no approved and regulated vaccine. This time with coronavirus, Operation Warp Speed and other programs, vaccines are being tested to potentially vaccinate the public by spring 2021.
What is still of greatest value is following the updates and guidance of your local public health authorities and the scientific knowledge of researchers and organizations such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
“If all social distance and masks are effective against coronavirus, if we are lucky, they can be effective against influenza,” Kolata said. “I hope people get flu vaccines – not that they are 100% effective, but they are certainly better than nothing.”