How Did the Spanish Flu Influence the Modern World?

Ever since Adam set foot on the ground, infectious diseases have traversed the earth, accompanying mankind everywhere it went. From the Antonine Plague to the novel CoronaVirus, numerous deadly outbreaks have occurred throughout the course of history, ravaging humanity and laying waste to countless lives. 

However, when flipping through the pages of history, you will find out that these outbreaks were not all the same; some were more prevalent than others, and the deadliest amongst them all was the Spanish Flu which claimed the lives of over fifty million people over the span of four successive waves. On the occasion of the centennial end of the Spanish Flu outbreak, let’s turn a page back in history and see how this global disaster upturned the 20th-century world and laid the foundation for the modern society we live in today.

What was the Spanish Flu?

The Spanish Flu – otherwise known as the 1918 influenza pandemic, was a deadly pandemic of influenza that swept the world in four waves between February 1918 and April 1920.

The first wave hit the Northern Hemisphere in the spring of 1918. Official documents reveal that cases of sickness and constituent death were first observed in the United States in March 1918 and then in France, Germany, and United Kingdom in April. This wave was a mild one, afflicting mainly the troops in the affected areas.

Image showing soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward.

However, the second wave that erupted towards the end of August was much more lethal and spread the flu virus to every corner of the globe, marking the highest fatality rate of the whole pandemic. 

The third and fourth waves emerged in January 1919 and spring 1920, respectively, mounting the toll of infected to a total of 500 million, which means that every one in three people alive during 1918-1920 had contracted the Spanish flu while about fifty million of them lost their lives to this deadly virus. Historians, however, believe that the actual death toll could have been as high as 100 million since a reliable diagnostic test for the virus was not available at that time, and the symptoms were often misdiagnosed for typhus or cholera.

Why is it called the Spanish Flu? 

Unlike the name suggests, the Spanish flu did not originate in Spain. Although the geological origin of this pandemic is still pretty disputed among historians, we know for sure that Spain is in the clear since cases had been reported in the United States, Germany, and Britain long before the pandemic travelled to Spain. 

So why is it named the Spanish flu?

Due to the wartime press censorship during the Great War, the United States and many other countries in Europe had restrictions reporting on the disease. Spain, however, was not an active member in the war and had free rein over its news coverage, so when cases of illness and death emerged, the Spanish newspapers covered the topic and disseminated information about the symptoms and spread of the virus. Cases such as the grave illness of Alfonso XIII, the King of Spain, received widespread coverage, and thus, the false notion arose that the pandemic had emerged from Spain. 

How did the Spanish Flu Influence the Modern World? 

The world suffered more at the hands of the Spanish flu than it ever had from any other disease or illness in the modern era. The number of human lives blighted by this deadly virus surpassed even the number of lives lost in the Great War. In the United States alone, over 675,000 people succumbed to the virus, while in Iran, almost fifteen percent of the total population vanished into oblivion. This global catastrophe shook the world economy, disrupting every sector be it the healthcare or the labor sector. 

Improved Working and Living Conditions for the Labor Force

Most influenza pandemics in the past would prove fatal for the very young or the very old, but the Spanish flu brought about a devilishly high mortality rate for the youth, wiping out monstrous numbers of young adults. According to official reports, about eighty workers present in a spinning factory in Britain died in a single day during the summer of 1918. 

The Great War was on its last legs when the outbreak erupted; the male population already decimated by the war in most countries was further brought to naught by this deadly pandemic. For a long time, the farm and factories were empty as there were no young men to run them anymore. This unprecedented labour shortage set off a new age of quality life for the workers, which included higher wages and public healthcare. 

Workers throughout Europe and the United States now demanded better living and working conditions. In Iran, for example, workers from the oil industry came out on the streets for the first time in 1920, protesting for higher wages and reduced work hours. As workers throughout the world began voicing their demands, governments were forced to change their social policies for the origin of developmental and welfare states. 

Social and Political Emancipation of Women

The decline in the labor force following the 1918 influenza outburst not only improved working conditions for male workers but also opened new doors of opportunities for women. More and more women joined the labor force, balancing the gender composition of the labor force in a never-seen-before way. In the United States alone, the percentage of women in the labor sector rose from a shallow 18% to a whopping 21% in the years posterior to the Spanish flu. 

Image showing a nurse wears a cloth mask while treating a patient

Women bolstered their position not only in the labor sector but also in the field of nursing. As medical doctors failed to contain and prevent the spread of the virus, the nursing staff, who were predominantly women, rose to the occasion and carried out successful patient care. 

Soon after the fourth wave of Spanish flu hit the United States, another milestone was achieved for the emancipation of women as Congress ratified the 19th amendment, guaranteeing all women in the country the right to vote. 

Universal Healthcare

The 1918 influenza pandemic stimulated the concept of socialized medicine and healthcare. The global disaster made people realize that the only way they could prevent future pandemics was to treat the illness at a population level. Russia was the first country that introduced socialized healthcare systems to its people, and soon other Western European nations followed in its footsteps to set forth universal health care. Quality public healthcare, improved disease surveillance, and a systematic assemblage of healthcare data were some of the few measures adopted into the healthcare policy. 

However, not everyone celebrated the newly introduced healthcare measures; many were disillusioned with science after witnessing the ravages of the pandemic and embraced a more unconventional route. For instance, following the wake of the 1920s, the sales of alternative medicine soared around the globe. 

The Takeaway

Today, after the centenary of the Spanish flu outbreak, not many people know the details of the deadliest pandemic that swept the world in the modern era. Despite the indissoluble impact it had on the lives of millions of people, it seems like the whole tragedy has faded into humanity’s unconsciousness. Now, this makes us wonder whether the current pandemic will be remembered by future generations, or will it too be forgotten despite all the lives it had plundered?