In 1918, as World War I finally wound down, another disaster shook the globe: a deadly flu pandemic nicknamed the Spanish flu. The virus killed an estimated 50 million people, severed economies and became a major moment in global history.
A century later, journalist, academic and historian Catharine Arnold unpacks the historical event in her book “Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History.”
On Thursday, Arnold joined WITF health reporter Brett Sholtis for Midtown Scholar’s virtual book talk series. The two discussed the details of Arnold’s book, the Spanish flu and how it overlaps and contrasts with today’s COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we began to receive those reports from China, my immediate response was ‘Oh my god, this is exactly what happened last time, and hopefully [our governments] will handle it a lot better than they did in World War I,’” Arnold said.
Through eyewitness accounts, Arnold uncovers just how each wave of the Spanish flu impacted the globe. The book tells the story of how families grappled with the loss of their loved ones, with soldiers returning from war, cities creating massive graves, government coverups and more.
Instead of just facts and figures, Arnold used documents, family memories, and memoirs to give the book a more personal approach.
“I just looked everywhere I could to find data to humanize [the story] and really bring it to life,” she said.
Some people with the Spanish flu had relatively mild, flu-like symptoms similar to those with COVID-19. Yet, according to Arnold, others developed harsher symptoms such as vomiting, bleeding of the lungs, blue skin and even white hair.
The 1918 flu may have been different symptomatically and, today, there is no war to further add to the misery. But Sholtis and Arnold did highlight some of the similarities between the Spanish flu and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sholtis compared the theory that the 1918 virus was created by the Germans to the conspiracy theories that are running rampant right now.
“When there’s a massive traumatic episode like the one we are suffering now, certain people will always find someone to blame,” Arnold said. “Instead of just saying ‘It happened,’ [they say], ‘there’s a reason, but we don’t know why.’”
There were also anti-mask movements during the 1918 pandemic. According to Arnold, some people claimed that the masks were uncomfortable and some even said it was unconstitutional. The movement mimics the various “reopen” protests throughout the nation, including in Harrisburg, where people have demanded that their states reopen businesses.
“When I see the stuff that is happening at the moment, I find it utterly terrifying and bewildering because, yes I know, I want a hair cut, I want to get my nails done,” she said. “But, I’m not prepared to put my safety and the safety of my family and the people on my street… I’m not prepared to put all that at stake simply for a minor beauty procedure.”
During the Q&A portion of the book talk, one audience member asked what historians could do now to help future researchers better understand the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“We got a thing running with the BBC called ‘COVID Diaries’ where people are filing their responses to it,” Arnold said. “I think we need to encourage more of that. It’s much easier to do now with social media.”
When asked what she thinks the world will look like after the pandemic, especially in England and the United States, Arnold said the world is beginning to feel a lot like the 1950s–minus the Cold War and McCarthyism.
“The way we live our lives is also more intimate because we’re on lockdown with our families or socially isolated,” she said. “Our values have changed, and it’s been a wakeup call that we all have to help each other and stick together.”