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Outbreak: Spanish Flu In LA in 1918

Broadway, Los Angeles, c1918, just as Spanish Flu was reaching LA

It’s hard to think about anything other than Coronavirus or Covid-19 right now. It’s taken over the news cycle and our lives. Los Angeles is almost entirely shut down – schools, movie theaters, restaurants, bars and most businesses (including The Real Los Angeles Tours). Most of us have never experienced anything like it before. Life has been put on hold, for how long we don’t know. We’re staying at home (especially because it’s raining a lot in L.A. at the moment), working remotely if we can, and spending way more time with our families/flat-mates/selves than normal. Almost everyone is concerned about what this will do to the economy. How am I going to pay the rent/mortgage? Will I have a job at the end of this?

These types of questions are at the front of our mind – or at least they’re ever present in the backs of our minds. So, what can I add to this? Well as a historian, I can look back at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in LA in 1918 (which is by far the closest parallel to today’s situation), see what happened then and try to come to some conclusions about what may happen this time around.

Bear in mind of course that we’re still, to an extent, flying blind, because 1918 is not an exact parallel for 2020 and we in the U.S. have done nowhere near enough testing to fully understand this pandemic. Whatever conclusions I do come to here are almost certainly not going to be fully borne out by the time the pandemic is over. This is just an attempt to learn some appropriate lessons from the past to guide us in the uncertain days ahead and get some historical perspective on the current crisis.

Origin of Spanish Flu

First of all, what was the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19? The first thing to understand is that it wasn’t actually Spanish. Scientists disagree about where it started – the U.S. or France are the main contenders for ground zero for the pandemic – in January of that year. The reason that it got the name ‘Spanish Flu’ is that wartime censors in much of the world forbade reporting of it in the press (so as not to hurt morale), but Spain, which was neutral, had a free press and so stories of the new virus were reported extensively, leading many to erroneously think that Spain was the originating country. Sound familiar?

What made this particular virus so deadly? For one thing its transmission rate was high, at 1.8. This meant that every person who got the virus, on average, passed it on to 1.8 other people. Coronavirus’ transmission rate is 2.3! Way more infectious than the Spanish Flu. Also Coronavirus appears to have a significantly higher mortality rate (because we’re in the early stages of the pandemic we can’t be sure).

Another reason for the high number of influenza deaths in 1918 was undoubtedly the fact that there was a world war going on then. Incredibly, 98% of all Spanish Flu related deaths were people under 65 years old. Nearly half were young adults, between 20 and 40 years old. That so many young men were being kept in close quarters, in the military, the stresses of combat and chemical attacks and their unhealthy diet were all likely factors in the virus’ incredible lethality amongst usually probably healthy young people. The mass movements of so many in the military also enabled the virus to spread much faster than any previous pandemic.

Spanish Flu Reaches LA

So what happened in Los Angeles? As I mentioned the first recorded case of what became known as Spanish Flu was in January 1918 and Angelenos would have watched as the pandemic spread around the world, probably worrying that eventually it would find its way here. In mid-September it reached L.A. when a seaman aboard a warship in San Pedro was recorded as having the virus.

By September 28 the Naval base there was placed under quarantine. Too late! On September 22 civilian cases started being reported too, with no less than 55 students at the Polytechnic High School in downtown having come down with the virus. The outbreak of Spanish Flu in LA had well and truly begun.

Fortunately here in Los Angeles we had City Health Commissioner Dr Luther Milton Powers, who took the situation seriously and was prepared to take the necessary steps to limit the spread of the virus. He formed a Medical Advisory Board, staffed with the most respected physicians in the city and local business leaders.

Powers was given the necessary emergency powers (no pun intended, honest) by Mayor Woodman, to effectively lock-down Los Angeles. Which he did on October 11. Shops were allowed to open, but all other places where people would gather – schools, colleges, movie theaters, churches etc – were all closed. Even crowd scenes in the still-new moving picture business that Los Angeles was becoming famous for, were forbidden. And it stayed that way for months.

Los Angeles During Pandemic

Nevertheless new cases quickly increased from 300 a day to over a thousand per day by the end of October. Eventually that number dropped to around 350 in November, leading Powers to opine that the worst was over. Unfortunately he was wrong, as new cases climbed once again, to over 500 per day in December, during a brief return to normalcy between December 2 and 10, leading restrictions to be put back in place.

Much like today it played havoc with Los Angeles’ most famous industry, as Charlie Chaplin’s and Douglas Fairbanks’ movies were unable to film – or be released. However Powers resisted the immense pressure to re-open the city until January 9 when the first five schools in infection-free areas were able to reopen. The city was then gradually permitted to reopen, but still, it wasn’t until February 6 that the last areas emerged from quarantine. Almost exactly four months after they were first closed.

Yep, the outbreak of Spanish Flu in LA was brutal, the shutdown lasted four months. So right now we’re probably only at the very beginning of quarantine measures. Still just catching up on our sleep and those re-runs of Friends on Netflix. Imagine what this is going to feel like after two months! Also here in Los Angeles we’re still free to move around, unlike in a lot of countries in Europe. It’s surely only a matter of time until all Americans are confined to their homes by Presidential decree.

Because here’s another fact about the Spanish Flu – it mutated over the year and came in three waves, each one more deadly than the last. So if we end quarantine measures too soon, without seeing the end of the pandemic, we could make things worse, more people would die and we’d prolong the disruption right through the year.

Legacy of the Spanish Flu

What happened then in 1919 and after the pandemic finally died out? Well, interestingly, one possible consequence was the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, which forbade the sale and consumption of alcohol, called Prohibition. There were many reasons for passing the bill, but one of them was the need to create a healthier lifestyle for Americans, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The long-term impact of Spanish Flu in LA was minimal, certainly Hollywood wasn’t badly affected in the long-run. As soon as people were able to go out they crowded into movie-theaters, all the more eager to see the latest films, since they’d been denied for so long. The economy in the U.S. and much of the world powered ahead as it moved into the 1920’s.

Probably the end of the war played a part in the booming economy of the Prohibition era, but it certainly seems likely that the long-term economic consequences weren’t that bad.

However, the death toll from the Spanish Flu was huge: somewhere between 20 and a hundred million people worldwide. In other words more people died in the pandemic than in the war itself!

There is a residual memory of the dark days of the Spanish Flu – who can forget the episode of Downton Abbey in which Lady Sybil dies from contracting the virus – but in the warm glow of peace after the Great War (as World War One was then called) it gradually receded into the sepia-tinted past. Undoubtedly many people wanted to forget.

Parallel’s with Covid-19 Pandemic

What will come out of this new pandemic? Only time of course can tell. As Winston Churchill famously said: “this is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning” (Churchill has a quote for every occasion). Whatever conclusions I can come to now will only be fodder for future jokes at my expense. However one thing is clear – things are going to change. And in ways we can only imagine now. 

Some trends, that were apparent in society before, will only be strengthened and become the norm (such as increased consciousness of personal hygiene). But also new and hitherto unforeseen consequences will flow from this crisis (a more comprehensive examination of the failings of the U.S. healthcare system perhaps).

Clearly, and I’m not suggesting we do this on a regular basis, but the shutdown is good for the environment. The Climate Crisis is the one other global crisis that is, in many ways, similar to the Coronavirus, albeit that the effects are felt over a much longer time-span. Could it be raised to a greater level of importance through the fight to overcome this pandemic? We can only hope.

One thing we have already learned from this crisis is that change can come very quickly. In the matter of a couple of days pretty much everything shut down in Los Angeles. And amazingly it wasn’t directed from above, but by ordinary people, putting pressure on school districts and elected officials and self-isolating (remember a couple of weeks ago, when that wasn’t a term we’d ever heard?). We must isolate ourselves and yet we’re all in this together. We need each other, friends, family and neighbors, more than ever. 

Also no country can deal with this on their own, not even the U.S. Closing the borders last week hasn’t helped combat the virus (it was already here). We truly live in a global world now (as we did in 1918 in fact) and problems in places on the other side of the planet are, indeed, our problems.

Even in comparison to the Spanish Flu, there has never been an event, that affected everyone – rich and poor, young and old, man and woman – all over the planet, at the exact same time. It’s a time for clarity and new ideas – and we’re going to have plenty of time to let think these piercing new thoughts!

Take care and stay healthy!

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

  • This article first appeared in March 2020.
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