Several other parallels have been drawn between the Spanish flu of 1918 and the coronavirus of 2020.
Despite the great strides in science made over the last century, once again medics today are grappling with a lack of vaccines, treatments or cures.
Instead, just as in 1918, medics are resorting to centuries-old advice to stay at home, while quackery has resurfaced via President Trump’s claims that people can inject disinfectant into their veins.
With a staggering 675,000 Americans being wiped out by the Spanish flu and one-third of the global population infected, the consequences of following along the same path as back then could be devastating.
In 1918, no one had a vaccine, treatment or cure for the great flu pandemic as it ravaged the world and killed more than 50 million people.
No one has any of that for the coronavirus, either, with scientists frantically trying to develop vaccines and serious sufferers becoming guinea pigs to experimental drugs.
The advice and stay-at-home orders rolled out to slow the spread of coronavirus mirror the advice back then, with the ancient common sense of quarantining being back.
Social distancing, hand-washing and masks were leading control measures then and now.
‘If you get it, stay at home, rest in bed, keep warm, drink hot drinks and stay quiet until the symptoms are past,’ said Dr. John Dill Robertson, Chicago health commissioner in 1918.
‘Then continue to be careful, for the greatest danger is from pneumonia or some kindred disease after the influenza is gone.’
But so too is quackery. In 1918, theories included to rub raw onions on your chest.
In 2020, President Trump made the baffling suggestion that people inject disinfectant into their veins.
Parallels have also been drawn between the failure of US presidents to take the threat seriously from the start.
Trump all but declared victory before infection took root in his country and he’s delivered a stream of misinformation ever since.
The Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station move Spanish flu victims in 1918
President Woodrow Wilson’s principal failure was his silence.
Not once, historians say, did Wilson publicly speak about a disease that was killing Americans grotesquely and in huge numbers, even though he contracted it himself and was never the same after.
Wilson fixated on America’s parallel fight in World War I like ‘a dog with a bone,’ says John M. Barry, author of ‘The Great Influenza.’
The infections themselves have also got vast similarities.
Like COVID-19, the 1918 pandemic came from a respiratory virus that jumped from animals to people, was transmitted the same way, and had similar pathology, Barry said by email.
The toll was heavier on average people and the poor, crowded in tenements, street cars and sweaty factories.
They could not all live by the words of the 1918 US surgeon general, Rupert Blue: ‘Keep out of crowds and stuffy places as much as possible. … The value of fresh air through open windows cannot be overemphasized. … Make every possible effort to breath as much pure air as possible.’
The same worrying trend has emerged across the US where wealthier communities have recorded fewer fatalities whereas low-income residents have been especially ravaged by the virus.
And just as the US has took aim at China over the coronavirus pandemic, with President Trump repeatedly insisting on calling it the ‘Chinese virus’, the Spanish flu was blamed on Spain.
The suspected ground zero of the 1918 flu ranges from Kansas to China. But it was clear to US officials even in 1918 that it didn’t start in Spain.
The pandemic took on Spain’s name only because its free press ambitiously reported the devastation in the disease’s early 1918 wave while government officials and a complicit press in countries at war – the US among them – played it down in a time of jingoism, censorship and denial.
It could just as easily have been called the US Army flu, US Navy flu, the German flu or British flu instead.