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COVID-19: What we can learn from the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 

Prior to the current Covid scare the last great pandemic was the 1918 Great Influenza outbreak. It followed the end of the First World War and was intimately connected to the awful conditions which spread from the killing fields of Europe.

It was greatly exacerbated by the poor housing and sanitary conditions of people living in the slums of most European and American cities. In some ways the history of the pandemic was a secret one.

While it coincided with many of the key events in the Irish revolutionary struggle, the scale of death and social dislocation was on a vaster scale.

The flu lasted through 1918 and infected some 500 million people – which was more than a quarter of the world’s population at the time. A shocking 50 million people are estimated to have died. There was a huge fall in life expectancy, especially in young adults who were most likely to die from the disease.

As a matter of perspective, the total military casualties recorded in the First World War came some 40 million, with approximately 10 million deaths.

While the revolutionary struggle has been recalled as the most dramatic series of events that took place in 1918 with the Conscription Crisis, German Plot and the Sinn Féin landslide victory in the 1918 general election, the flu virus was the one which had the greatest long-term impact.

800,000 Irish people were infected by the virus and an estimated 20,000 died – a multiple of those killed during the War of Independence and Civil War. All western cities were then to a lesser or greater extent cesspools of disease. The impact of the flu was accentuated by the already massive prevalence of disease and insanitary conditions. Dublin was one of the worst, with the tenements breeding all manner of malady and vice.

Infant morality in Dublin was 169.6 per 1,000 in 1900 and increased significantly during the pandemic. As matters of perspective, infant morality had fallen to 22.4 per 1,000 by 1969.

Apart from the bare statistics, the impact of the flu had broader implications. Oliver St. Gogarty revived his play Blight, a withering indictment of conditions among Dublin slum dwellers, from the perspective of a medical practitioner.

Although it took some years after the foundation of the Free State steps were eventually taken to ameliorate the urban blight through improved housing and public health provision.

Similar measures were taken in other other European countries and in the United States. Ii is no exaggeration to describe what followed the flu and the health crisis it led to as little short of a social revolution.

That was facilitated by the extension of democracy, as evidenced by what happened here, and by the extension of the influence of the trade unions and other social and civic movements.

The comparison with the current pandemic bears some resemblance to the current pandemic. In other ways it is qualitatively different.

First of all and most importantly while there have been deaths and they are likely to increase, Corvid seems not as virulent, nor is symptoms as severe as the Great Influenza.

On the other hand it is unpredictable, with the potential to cause further massive and unforeseeable outcomes.


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