The lessons of the Spanish flu epidemic: Historian draws parallels to COVID-19

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Church services canceled. Public meetings banned. Schools closed.

While they may look like headlines on current newsstands, these warnings were put into place during the Spanish flu more than a century ago.

Mount Vernon-raised historian Kenneth Davis – author of “More Deadly than War” – says the 1918 pandemic was a warning for the future.

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"The real lessons I think of 1918 are that…fear, propaganda and censorship all played great roles in the Spanish flu pandemic,” says Davis.

How bad was the Spanish flu? New estimates put the global death toll at 50 to 100 million people. About 675,000 of those were Americans. To put it into perspective – that’s more Americans than those who died fighting all the wars of the 20th century.

Davis says that World War I served as a catalyst in the spread of the disease.

"The movement of troops, millions of men on the march, refugees crowding cities, supply ships coming into ports and infected crews would spread this disease through these ports,” says Davis. “…Globalization is one of the parallels to today. We move around a lot."

It's not clear where it started but the virus was first noted at a Kansas Army base in March 1918. So why was it called the Spanish flu?

"Spain was a neutral country. It did not censor its newspapers. So the first accounts of a massive epidemic striking Madrid came out of Spain,” Davis explained.

He also says the death toll was exacerbated when “sound medical advice was ignored.”

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