Spanish Flu Revisited

One of the most surprising things for me when COVID-19 struck was to realize that the major global health crisis that had preceded it, the poorly called Spanish Flu, over the years and decades that followed — and throughout my long existence — had gradually become a footnote in the history books. It was hard to recall any previous reference to that deadly pandemic that nowadays has become all too familiar.

Perhaps the concomitant Great War overshadowed the dead and sick that continued to grow in the typical exponential pattern of new viruses, be it in careless Philadelphia or a better prepared Saint-Louis. Perhaps the memory of a loved one ravaged and taken away from a family only too soon was too dark to honor and remember as such. Perhaps both, and so many other things, influenced the rather surprising discovery that — over a century ago — the world had been in the grip of a deadly pandemic as well, a flu that killed between 20 to 50 million people, surpassing World War I casualties. Whatever the case, and as fascinating as it is to think that the conditions the older world faced the pandemic with and the weapons at their reach were far more precarious than the ones we deal with today, it is even more fascinating to find its footprint without needing to go too far.

The New York Times has a vast archive of online articles going back to the late 19th century. The Pandemic seems to be well covered as per my few quick glances at the archive in recent weeks. Indeed, a small blurb on the rising violence of the outbreak in Argentina was present on the October 24th edition of the paper. The article stated that Brazilian officials had requested the Argentine government not to send any representatives to attend the upcoming Inauguration of President Rodrigues Alves in November on the grounds of the epidemic. Interestingly, President-elect Rodrigues Alves never took office, as he fell ill with the influenza and died in January 1919.

Today, a small story drew me closer to the Spanish Flu. My grandmother, who was born in 1893, became deaf when she was 25 or 26 years old. When I was a child, every now and then I would hear a slight reference as to how grandma had turned deaf. She had fallen very ill with the flu in her mid-twenties and developed an ear infection that destroyed her eardrum and left her permanently deaf. Nobody ever made a big deal of the disease that triggered the infection, so I always thought it was just pure bad luck on her part that the flu had gone that far. It seemed almost crazy that a virus could cause such damage these days, so I had always thought she was just very very unlucky.

Doing the math today with my mom, we concluded that in 1918-19 my grandmother was 25-26 years old. The Spanish Flu came in two waves, 1918 and 1919. The second wave was more devastating than the first. I paused as I hung up the phone. Suddenly, if my suspicion was right, my grandmother´s deafness shone under a different light. In fact, losing your hearing even seemed like a small price to pay for a virus that kept the world under its thumb and took millions of victims. I wonder how many Spanish Flu survivors might have been impaired in similar ways and made little of it, unconsciously perpetuating the notion that things like that could only happen in the past.

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