The Pandemic: Historical Red Herring?
Why Comparing COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu May Be Doing More Harm than Good
S.S. Saucerman / October 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is unprecedented—sort of. Though most us living today have never experienced such an episode, the event itself is (from a historical perspective) relatively commonplace. Not that it feels that way to us. COVID-19 (C19) is happening now, and people we know and love are suffering its singular and astounding impact.
In fact, pandemics and plagues have almost continuously colored—and altered—human history. Since the dawn of recordkeeping, there are few recorded periods/places on Earth that have escaped some level of pandemic wrath. Given (what would seem to be) this bounty of historical backlog, one might be forgiven for assuming it to be a relatively straightforward exercise to review and analyze past pandemics when battling similar outbreaks occurring in the present—like we’re doing now with C19. Yes, one might assume that, but as it turns out, it’s not so simple.
Enter the Spanish flu of 1918 (SF18). Since C19 media coverage began, it’s hard to make through any news broadcast concerning C19 without also hearing some reference to SF18. The Spanish flu has become the “go-to” pandemic of comparison for many news outlets as they attempt to offer up context and scale regarding C19’s impact on today’s society. And admittedly, some of this information is useful—particularly in terms of “putting a face” on our current plight. But this continual comparison may also be doing average viewers more harm than good. Why? To explain it we first must understand a little background.
The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was devastating. Worldwide, the pandemic stole anywhere from 15 million to 70 million lives. Roughly 675,000 (a more reliable figure) died here in the United States. The official end of World War I was still a year away, and war-torn people and communities from all over the world were still bitterly mourning dead family members and helplessly surveying the smoldering wreckage of their hometowns when SF18 came along and escalated their already considerable misery.
Though the United States entered the war late, we still had thousands of soldiers deployed overseas, so it was never so much a matter of if as much as a matter of when the pandemic would find our shores. Most historians believe the pandemic started along coastal France (more than likely proliferated by WWI troop movements) in the early spring of 1918. By August of that same year, SF18 was reported in New England. This was about the time Europe was beginning the second wave (of three total) of the disease. The pandemic didn’t show signs of waning on either side of the Atlantic until late fall/early winter of that same year. In all, this episode of the pandemic was relatively brief.
By mid-1919, U.S. authorities felt the disease was reasonably contained and shifted their energies to social and economic damage-control. Of course there was widespread praise for the resiliency of the American people (who were still immersed in hyper-patriotism brought on by the war effort) and widespread reporting of how the country’s economy had emerged remarkably unscathed from its viral assault. And to be fair, this did appear to be the case. With some minor interruptions in commerce (weeks, months), the U.S. economy was comparably stable. The stock market wasn’t unusually volatile, employment numbers were keeping pace with pre-flu figures, and mercantile staples such as mail-order, dry goods, pharmaceuticals and the auto industries were remarkably buoyant.
And it is exactly at this point where I fear the current SF18/C19 comparisons may unknowingly be luring modern-day businesspeople into a trap. Given that today’s media marches out the SF18/C19 narrative so often and with so much authority, I have to wonder aloud whether aspects of SF18 post-recovery—particularly the effortlessly smooth economic revival afterward—are sending a false message to the listener (let’s say, for instance, the owner of construction contracting firm impacted by C19?) who is at this moment crafting a C19 recovery plan for his own businesses. This person may (quite justifiably) come away from a SF18/C19 comparison feeling overly optimistic about the country’s natural inherent ability to rebound right out of the COVID-19 era without so much as a scratch. But we need to pause long enough to ask the question, “Are we being lured into a complacency that proves disastrous later on?” I’m thinking yes, and here are three reasons why:
1. World War I (1914–1918). Though but a mere moment on the grand historical scale, life in 1918 and life in 2020 are a universe apart. The Spanish flu struck the United States in mid-1918 while our nation was still deeply immersed in a war-time economy. War-time economies, for those unfamiliar, have proven throughout history to be generally robust and plentiful—for the winners, that is. Sometimes this was simply an unanticipated benefit of war, and other times it was a pre-meditated strategy. Napoleon I of France is a grand example of someone who loved to start wars for no more purpose than re-stocking his coffers in Paris. In WWI, the United States was indeed on the winning side, and having joined the conflict so late in the game, the United States didn’t suffer nearly as much as the rest of the world.
In 2020, we don’t enjoy this “advantage.” Though militarily invested in a handful of nebulous operations around the world, the United States isn’t actively engaged in and/or coming off of a major conflict. What’s more—given modern societal attitudes regarding war—I think a major event is far less likely to immerge today compared to the early 1900s. In short, wars aren’t “cool” anymore. For all its faults, the internet has connected the world in a manner unprecedented in history. While lack of communication and blind suspicion was almost certainly a driving element in major wars of the past, today communication is only a click away. So, in end, I wouldn’t count on a war to come bail out our economy anytime soon.
2. The Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914). The next factor coloring our understanding of the Spanish flu (and therefore any comparison with C19) was known as the Second Industrial Revolution. The First Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) had championed improvements in the machine tool industry (including industry standardization), the adoption of interchangeable parts in manufacturing, and much of the steam power/engine revolution. After some mid-century stagnation (civil wars will do that), the Second Industrial Revolution came along to introduce new innovation in internal combustion engines, setting the table for an automotive revolution that would become an industry juggernaut for much of the 1900s.
While all this was going on, new industrial strategies/methods (mass production, assembly line), technological/communication advances (telephone, radio broadcasting, A/C electrical power) and unparalleled scientific enlightenment (Einstein, Curie, Tesla) were leading the world into the technological age. And we haven’t even discussed the Bessemer steel production process that monumentally altered the applications for steel, nor have we touched on the coming of age of a civil engineering industry and the new construction of (mostly metropolitan) far more efficient and beneficial gas, water and sewage infrastructure networks. A person might even argue that the years surrounding the Spanish flu were artificially bolstered by not one but two economic anomalies. Afterall, industrial revolutions and world wars don’t come around that often.
3. Recordkeeping (or Lack Thereof). This takes us to what I consider to be the single biggest reason to not trust the SF18/C19 comparisons you’re seeing on TV/online: the data itself. Yeah, this is a less provocative subject, but the quantity, quality and reliability of the data going into any argument or comparison is without question the most important element in determining whether the result from the argument will be valid, viable and worthwhile. Or, when applied to SF18/C19 comparisons, perhaps the more appropriate question would be whether our results are applicable for an actionable COVID-19 recovery plan. Can we rely on this result to be the product of accurate recordkeeping (data) and informational due diligence, relevance and accuracy? In short, have we avoided the “garbage in/garbage out” pitfall that has decimated multitudes of truth-mining exercises?
Boy, have I got some bad news for you. As we mentioned earlier, 100 years isn’t historically that long ago. Remember those communications innovations we discussed above? Well, though revelatory, they were still quite green and hopelessly untested. They were also happening only in a handful of industrialized countries (mostly the United States and parts of Europe), and though Cyrus West Field had installed a transatlantic telegraph cable way back in 1854, it would be more than 100 years (1956) before the first transatlantic telephone cable would be in place. So, in 1918, global communication was remarkably slow, limited and iffy. When it was available, it was slow—cheetah-versus-snail slow. Another problem besides speed was quantity. Communicating in 1918 was still quite expensive, and the space for sending communications was sorely limited (remember telegrams?).
But just for fun, let’s suppose we have adjusted ourselves to the technological limitations of the day, and we’ve now set our sights on gathering up actuarial information about both WWI and the Spanish flu. Our communication vehicles (telegraph, ship, continental rail) are in place, and we’re anxious to receive and start disseminating hordes of information. Then something strange occurs: nothing—well, close to nothing anyway. Only small amounts of information are trickling in—and most of that is from Britain. Everywhere else is pretty much silent. We scratch our heads and check our comm lines. All good. We once again send requests and queries for information but receive little more than before. So, what’s going on?
As it turns out, the reason you’re not receiving any data is because there isn’t any data! Who do you think you were dealing with here, Wikipedia? Think about it: The people and locales from whom you’re requesting information are the very same areas that have only recently and horrifyingly been torn asunder by both a world war and a pandemic. Do you believe for a moment that the first thing on the agendas of millions of besieged, shell-shocked and destitute human beings is to make sure your accounting is up-to-date?
And in fact, this data never did materialize. This brings us full circle back to “the pandemic took anywhere from 15 million to 70 million lives” statement made above. This isn’t lazy research. It really is all we know. The harsh truth regarding both WWI (whose fatality numbers differ from 13 million to 45 million depending on the source) and the Spanish flu epidemic is that we don’t have—and will never have—any true measure of how destructive and devastating both events were. The cold, harsh reality is that—though there are still older citizens among us who lived through the flu—we will never, ever know the true casualty counts. We will have a wide range, but never more than that.
So, what have we learned? I believe we can comfortably conclude that historical data regarding both the Spanish flu of 1918 and WWI is, ah, dodgy at best. It certainly isn’t anything I would base my company’s future on. We also have to remember that we’ve discussed only three potentially disruptive historical factors here. We haven’t even taken into consideration the multitude of other sociological, technological, ideological and even military variables that might enter in to quash any chance at any attempt at performing a rational, coherent comparison between the impossibly complex SF18 and C19 experiences. (Do you know the story about WWI leaders postponing the announcement of the Spanish flu epidemic by months with the goal of spreading it to the enemy?)
So use caution when navigating your (and your company’s) way out of our current COVID crisis—and the next time you see one of those SF18/C19 comparisons on the news, enjoy the history lesson but take it all with a grain of salt. Yes, I do believe we learn from history. I also believe we learn far more from our mistakes than our successes. But I believe even more that there’s nothing that replaces an individual’s inherent ability to take in new ideas and concepts and sieve them through their own personal filter of what is the truth and what is a red herring.
Will this leave us open to the old adage that “those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it”? Not in the least. On the contrary, I’m banking that your unique point of view, singular insight and extraordinary determination may just well become history!
S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager who worked for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.