Let’s Talk About the Spanish Flu

Shall we? You know, because I want to. For no other reason. At all.

It didn’t start in Spain. No one’s really sure where it started, but the first reported case was at a military base in Kansas. ‘Spanish Flu’ and ‘Florida Man’ actually have very similar origin stories: freedom of the press. The same way the Sunshine Laws in Florida allow every little detail about every crime to be reported where in other states they wouldn’t, Spain was the only major country attempting to stay neutral in the First World War, and thus could report on whatever they wanted. Including all these people getting sick out of nowhere.

There was a first wave in the spring of 1918, and a second deadlier wave in the fall. What made that second wave deadlier also related to the war. Troops on the front line who only got the mild version of the flu were kept in local infirmaries then put back to the front line once they were better. Troops with the deadlier strain who presented as far more dire were sent home, where they of course brought the flu with them as some kind of ugly souvenir.

There was a third wave in 1919. Everybody today knows about the second wave, keeps going on and on about the second wave, and, gee, I wonder why that is? But no one seems to know there was a third wave of the same deadly strain featured in the second wave that didn’t kill nearly as many only because social situations had changed, aka the war had ended.

All together the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu is said to have lasted two years.

Oh, months? Did I somehow mean months?

No. Two years. Two fucking years. Twenty-four months, one hundred and four weeks, seven hundred and thirty days. Give or take.

Hey, let’s talk about San Francisco! Great city, right? With the steep hills and the fog and that pretty bridge. Colder than you’d think, right? Expensive, too expensive to live there, but fun to visit! Unless you’re a time traveler going back to 1919. San Francisco got their first case in October 1918 and just fucking slammed the brakes on the city to get it into control. Everything was cancelled, nobody could gather anywhere, and everyone had to wear masks all the time. And they did such a great job, by the end of November, they decided they were done! They had licked it (figuratively, of course) and everybody could take off their masks and gather together and lick trolley cars to their heart’s content.

45,000 people in San Francisco caught the flu. 3,000 people died.

Oh, and Pittsburgh is nice, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t think so, but that’s because one of my ex-boyfriends was OBSESSED with Pittsburgh in an incredibly weird, intense way. But, you know, there’s a river. And it sure is steep there, too, eh? Talk about cities I wouldn’t want to drive stick in. Also cities that have a bad history of public health responses. Pennsylvania started shutting shit down in early October but Pittsburgh went, ‘WHY THERE’S NOTHING WRONG NOTHING’S HAPPENING I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF ALL THESE FACTORIES.’ They pretended nothing was going on, and continued to pretend nothing was going on, even as 1,221 were killed in a single week in October. Other cities fluctuated in transmissions and deaths, but Pittsburgh was pretty much a straight killing machine for months on end. But if you don’t want it to be happening, you can just pretend it’s not and everything will be fine.

Somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 people died in Pittsburgh by the time it was over.

The Spanish Flu killed a lot of young, healthy people, more so than other strains of the flu, and scientists still don’t know why. They have guesses. Good guesses. One of these guesses is that young people were actually being killed ‘cytokine storms,’ which basically amounts to your immune system going so HAM against the virus that it ends up killing you, too. When I say young I don’t mean kids. A normal flu kills the youngest, the oldest, and the immunocompromised. This flu was killing twenty and thirty year olds by making them choke on their own immune response. We think.

Because here’s a fun fact your doctor doesn’t want you to think about: medical science is almost entirely trial-and-error. You know how you can predict an eclipse several thousand years in the future but you can’t predict the weather for next Tuesday? It’s because of variables. There’s, like, three variables for heavenly bodies positions and several hundred for the weather. Well, there’s about several million to consider in medical science, so a lot of medical progress is just scientists hucking shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. And even when something does stick, they don’t know why. Or don’t know what kind of insidious damage it’s doing until it’s too late. So they scrap it and go back to square one. And you can’t be mad at them, because that’s the best practice we have right now. Make an educated guess, try it out, keep it if it works and get rid of it if it doesn’t. Try something else.

Or, medical science thinks it understands something, and then it mutates into something new and kills fifty million people at least. What was once semi-dangerous but mostly-survivable disease best treated with rest and hydration suddenly turns into something killing people in ways we didn’t previously think possible. Medical science gets details in drips and drops. People are choking on their own immune response. It’s attacking kidneys. It’s potentially making its victims start throwing clots as a side hobby and giving them heart attacks and strokes. It’s potentially crossing the goddamned blood brain barrier and causing neurological deficits. Some people get it and never even know they had it. Other entirely fit and active people in their thirties end up vented in an ICU or have a case that lingers for literal months. And all of this is new to medical science and no one is sure which symptoms are real or what to even do it about it.

Oh, sorry. That last paragraph stopped being about the Spanish Flu.

Wear a fucking mask.


Why the Second Wave of the Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

1918 Pandemic Influenza: Three Waves

San Francisco Had the 1918 Flu Under Control

When the Spanish Flu Swept In, Pittsburgh Failed the Test

Pittsburgh Didn’t Confront the 1918 Epidemic in Time


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