I’ve long been unhappy with the way COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 have been compared. Obviously it is a short hand way to compare quarantine and stay at home measures of today with 1918, as opposed to the lethal nature of the sickness. For the record, the Spanish Flu was a far more terrifying and deadly disease than the Coronavirus.
On the subject of quarantine though, there are reasonable comparisons but only to an extent. While the Spanish Flu shut down many places, it did not cause the same crippling economic impact that we are seeing from Coronavirus. You see folks, there was a little thing called The Great War which was just wrapping up.
The United States had gone onto a total war economy footing soon after getting fed up with unrestricted submarine warfare killing our neutral sailors and sinking our neutral shipping. That means the entire economy from agriculture to manufacturing was geared towards exactly one thing – and that thing was war.
Because the United States was almost totally untouched by the war in Europe, we had a massive advantage in manufacturing and food producing capabilities. As a food-exporting nation, we were in a prime position to not only feed our population and our army, but to also prop up our allies who had already tended to import food from us. The demands of war only made US food and manufacturing exports that much more crucial.
To say there were labor shortages would be an understatement. As in WWII, the First World War saw extensive use of women, children, and teenagers in various industries including agriculture in order to boost the work force. Early tractors and other mechanized improvements helped ease the strain on farmers, but total war meant total employment and then some.
Things were so dire on some labor fronts that the US Army even organized draftees and volunteers with logging experience into the Spruce Production Division in order to ensure a steady stream of that crucial airplane wood.
The point here is that at the dawn of the Spanish Flu, the US economy – much like it was in 2019 and early 2020 was booming at an insane pace.
That’s about where the similarities end.
A Much Slower Spread
Across the nation, cities enacted various quarantine orders. Because travel was slow, some places like Seattle had literally weeks to prepare before the flu showed up. Philadelphia, which was the epicenter of the flu in the US suffered massive casualties due to poor planning, poor living conditions and poor response to the spread of the flu. By the time it got to Seattle, the city fathers were ready. Much like today, various gatherings were banned and businesses closed. Then as now “essential” business stayed open. However, we are constantly pointed to 1918 as both an example and a justification for similar behaviors today, and to somehow draw some sort of moral courage from the sacrifices and actions of our ancestors.
That’s a load of Bravo Sierra.
In 1918, you couldn’t shut down the economy. We had a literal world war to fight and shutting down almost anything was a sure fire way to ruin the production of crucial war materials that were busy propping up the allied nations and our own homefront.
Fortunately the war came to a screeching halt on November 11, 1918. But while influenza-related quarantine actions were still in effect across the nation, the economy still didn’t come to a halt. Many laborers in the west worked seasonal jobs and had put together their “winter stake” during the harvest season. Logging was closing down for the winter anyway, and demobilization takes a long time. Rather than a shutdown, the economy started to slowdown to meet the new needs of a world at peace – but also a world that needed rebuilding. It is true we had a recession 1919-20, but that is a typical post war downturn rather than pandemic related.
The Spanish flu largely burned itself out over the winter and early spring of 1918-19. It is absolutely true that quarantine efforts played an important role in reducing the spread of the disease and saving lives. It is also absolutely true that COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu have nowhere near similar death rates or potential for deaths.
So while pundits are pointing to the Spanish Flu in a desperate attempt to justify not only shutting down an entire nation, but justifying enormously gross abuses of our civil liberties, they are failing. Here is a handy checklist why:
• The sale of “non essential goods” continued in 1918. If you wanted a book, garden seeds, or a firearm in 1918, by golly you could still buy a book, garden seeds, or a firearm. Often in the same store and with no government oversight, to boot.
• The economic realities between 1918 and 2020 are not at all alike. We do not have a war or a battle torn Europe to rebuild when this is over. We have shut down untold numbers of businesses and there is no clear pathway to restarting the economy.
• The employment situation is different too. In 1918, shutdowns didn’t increase unemployment to dangerous levels. In fact, most places couldn’t be shut down.
• We live better, healthier lives. The Spanish Flu swept through buildings and neighborhoods that would be considered uninhabitable today. We have better sanitation, better understanding of disease control, and better ways to stop the spread of germs.
• The world was less globalized. The United States produced all we needed for ourselves, and exported food, raw materials and finished goods. Today, we import many of our raw materials and finished goods. We cannot simply stand up, dust off our boots and get back to work.
• Things literally moved slower. Communication and travel were vastly slower. Diseases could be more easily contained, and communities were often more insular and more self sufficient. More importantly many places had weeks and months to prepare for the onslaught of a disease they knew was coming.
Censorship, For Both
We can note one big thing that 1918 and 2020 have in common – the Spanish Flu and COVID-19 were both heavily censored. Because warring nations heavily controlled negative or bad news in their various presses, it took neutral Spain to really break the reality of the “Spanish” Flu, which may have actually originated in the US or Europe. Compare to China’s heavy-handed censorship and propaganda campaigns around COVID-19.
In 1918 you couldn’t shut down an economy for the Spanish Flu because there was a war, and the more seasonal nature of many jobs reduced the impact of post Armistice shutdowns or slowdowns. Combined with the fact there was still a need to export goods and material to war-torn Europe, and by the time the flu ran its course, we only had a post-war recession to deal with.
In 2020 we have shut down the greatest economy the world has ever seen in history, and it simply will not kickstart back to life. Businesses have closed for good, savings have been wiped out, supply chains disrupted, inventories of goods and materials have vanished, and the United States is sitting idle at the start of spring when many industries and businesses start ramping up for the year.
The only thing 1918 and 2020 have in common are the stupid masks we have to wear in public. And they looked cooler in 1918. Oh I take that back. Wartime assaults on civil liberties look pretty familiar too. The only question –both now and then– is how many of those rights are we getting back, and how many governments are going to fight to keep the infringements they have put into place?
About the Author: Steve Coffman is a consulting historian presently researching the dark history of the Washington State Secret Service, and their concerted assault on civil rights in Washington State 1917-1919. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org