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Crises bring technologies to the front: Spanish Flu and COVID-19 – a century apart yet strikingly similar

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a healthcare crisis, so challenging the whole world is trying its best to confront it. But we mustn't forget the 1918 influenza pandemic, dubbed the Spanish Flu, has been the most severe recorded pandemic in human history to date. Although it might seem the current landscape is entirely different from the backdrop of yesteryear's crisis, the way technology has helped people overcome the current pandemic is strikingly similar to how our ancestors coped in 1918.

Telephones, railroads, and even aircraft played their part, as the pandemic changed the world and the ways we lived. Now we're helped by the original breakthrough ideas reinvented over the past 100 years.

Spanish Flu – the great-grandmother of COVID-19

The pandemic that swept through the US and Europe in 1918-1920, killing over 50 million people was one of history's most devastating health crises. Parallels between the so-called Spanish Flu, caused by an A(H1N1) virus, and the present-day coronavirus outbreak were clear from the start. However, it would be unfair to compare the consequences of the two. For one thing, the COVID-19 ordeal isn't over yet, and it's too early to discuss it in the past tense. An effective vaccine that, hopefully, will be offered sooner rather than later, could change the odds in our favour, as none was developed for the Spanish Flu which died down on its own after two years. Plus, a hundred years ago, there were no antibiotics to treat complications like pneumonia.

When the Spanish Flu was beginning to unfold, people said it would be a "minor cold" or a "three-day fever", but it turned out to be much more severe than that. Just like in 2020, health systems worldwide were quickly overwhelmed.

Lockdown measures quite similar to today's were introduced, with theatres, schools and borders all closed. Quarantines were imposed, and masks were made mandatory. San Francisco was the first American city to require face coverings by "The Mask Ordinance" by the city mayor on October 22, and the masks had to be four layers thick. In some American cities, people could be fined up to $100 for not wearing one. Sounds familiar, right? Social distancing was imposed as well. Public gatherings, church services were banned. However, the degree of restrictions very much depended on the country. The virus wasn't restricted to class or income, so anyone could catch it – and catch they did. Among the notable survivors of the Spanish Flu are the US President Woodrow Wilson, Mahatma Gandhi, Greta Garbo, the painter Edvard Munch and Kaiser Willhelm II of Germany and the UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Spanish Flu spitting ban
Spanish Flu spitting ban/Credit Science History Institute

The new flu was nicknamed "Spanish" even though patient zero was most likely a US soldier at a training camp in Kansas, where 100 servicemen were infected. A week later, the number of flu cases grew fivefold, with the disease spreading fast across the country. Spread by World War I troop movements, it killed anywhere between 17 million and 100 million people worldwide, including some 675,000 Americans. With the media and communication channels not nearly as swift as today, there was no way of knowing how exactly the epidemic played out in many other parts of the world.
As for the first wave of the outbreak in Spain, it took place just after the celebrations of the patron saint of Madrid around May 22, 2018, and soon pretty much everyone was falling ill with the flu. Still, some experts insist the 1918 flu could have originated even earlier in China or in France in 1917. The main difference between the current pandemic and the Spanish Flu was that the latter tended to kill people in their 20s and 30s, which hurt the economies in unimaginable ways.

Economies in tatters but technology saves the day

The high fatality rate of the Spanish Flu among young people is striking in comparison with COVID-19, where the fatality rate has been far higher among the elderly than among the young. This is one reason the economic impacts of the COVID-19 and Spanish Flu pandemics will likely differ. The one thing that prevented a sharp dive in industrial production 100 years ago was the war effort that created a constant demand for coal, steel, machinery, textiles etc. On the other hand, these days the employment in the service sector is much higher than 100 years ago, which suggests the direct impact of non-essential business closures, which tend to fall more heavily in service industries, could be higher today than in 1918.

Still, one of the things both pandemics have in common, is that they became breeding grounds for new businesses solutions that became relevant overnight.

The aftermath of the World War was, indeed, far from an ideal setting for economics, with the post-war recession, unrest and violence roiling both America and the Old World. Post-war Germany was struggling with debt. The US adopted prohibition; the newly-founded Soviet Union was in the post-revolutionary disarray… Nevertheless, despite massive disruptions and uncertainties caused by the pandemic, the war and economic hardships that followed, several engines were driving economic growth.

Internet is yesterday's telephone!

In this day and age, the internet and worldwide connectivity play the role telephones did in the '20s. Internet providers and businesses have made online communications more efficient and productive. They have been the ones to reap the benefit of lockdowns and quarantines the most. Online fitness classes, Zoom meetings, remote learning courses and opera broadcasts have reached the peak of popularity when meeting up in person our going out was out of the question. Less prepared companies, unable to cope with the traffic and grasp the importance of online presence in due time, were overwhelmed and lost customers.

Antique telephone
Antique telephone/Photo via

Back in the '20s, quarantine kept people away from work and friends and family, but telephones were there to help. The epidemic's timing wasn't perfect, though, since Alexander Bell's brainchild was still in the process of becoming ubiquitous. By the 1920s only 35% of American homes were equipped with telephones. In Europe, home telephones were even rarer. Plus the connection still depended on living people – switchboard operators – who would also fall ill, causing understaffing of local telephone companies. On October 22 1918, for example, The New York Times reported 2,000 New York Telephone Company operators, almost a third of the workforce, were out sick. Telephone companies would even mail postcards to customers, asking them to limit usage to emergencies.

However imperfect, telephones did play a considerable role in containing the epidemic. In times of the Spanish Flu epidemic, telephone ordering becomes a popular form of commerce.

Shops in the US were in the habit of placing placards in their windows, encouraging local customers—especially those who might be sick — to call in an order rather than come in person. 

Very much in the vein of grocery stores offering delivery during the coronavirus, many restaurants started offering take-out rather than indoor dining, and courier services flourishing all across the globe, making it easier for people to stay indoors without sacrificing their needs. It was during the Spanish Flu pandemic the telephone ceased to be a toy for the rich and became a necessity. Its functionality paved the way to solutions used today – by virtue of a new medium.

Stereopticon - TV's great-grandfather

Mass entertainment has suffered as it was deemed unsafe for people to congregate in concert halls, movie theatres and museums. But just as TV and on-demand broadcasting has been filling the gap left by the pandemic, radio connected the planet in the early 20th century. It provided entertainment and kept people abreast of the news and recent developments.

It must be mentioned that radio was not yet a mass medium then. The first news broadcast didn't take place until 1920. Edison's phonographers were a substitute for live performances, most of which were cancelled during the pandemic. The most practical way to share breaking news at the time was something called stereopticon bulletins. News alerts, photos and film clips were projected on giant screens at different locations across major cities. However, once the epidemic struck, stereoscopic bulletins that drew crowds were banned as a hazard to public health.

Reporter stereopticon
Reporter stereopticon/Photograph by Erkki Huhtamo Collection, Los Angeles

For many months during the Spanish Flu, sheet music, records and books were the only way to while away the time. Compared to a massive variety of on-demand and online entertainment available to us these days, our ancestors had it much tougher. Coronavirus has also brought around the heyday of video games: Nintendo reported its annual profit had surged 41% - the highest in nine years.

Direct to consumer movie premiers have become another way to reach viewers, given that nobody knew for sure when proper movie venues would reopen.

Luckily, these days technology is accessible to pretty much all income levels, making it possible for everyone to find out the latest news with just a few clicks on their phones or tablets. A hundred years ago reading a newspaper was the only way to get the information which, at times, was censored to prevent panic and "unpatriotic discussions".

Lessons learned – or, perhaps, not quite?

What did the early 20th-century pandemic teach us? And have its lessons helped us in coping with the current health crisis?

One of the primary outcomes of the 1918 Influenza pandemic was a shift towards automation and contact-free operations.

Many processes that used to depend on people were partly automated or made contact-free, including automatic telephone switchboards, food deliveries, and mail-order catalogues grew in popularity. In the current reality, we are using the same principles, yet on a more sophisticated level. These days, more and more businesses realise the only way to bridge the demand to supply gap in the times of lockdown is to dive headfirst into digitalisation of their businesses – and dive they do.

woman typing in mask
A New York City typist wears a flu mask while at her desk, October 16, 1918/Credit The National Archives and Records Administration

The lesson we're yet to learn is the importance of autonomy on a personal and global level. With international supply chains unwinding across the globe, the economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19 may become more profound than that in the '20s when a minimal number of goods was produced using foreign parts. Perhaps, understanding that there may come a time when non-essential stuff such as restaurant meals, fancy clothes or new electronics must be given up at least for a while, could make coping with any pandemic a bit easier.