The Spanish flu, a non-Spanish pandemic

On November 2, 1918, The New York Times published a story about a mysterious illness that appeared to be some kind of flu. It came, as they said, from Spain. This was the origin of the myth of the Spanish flu, a pandemic that, however, did not start in the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, the most widespread theory about its origin places it precisely in the United States.

From Kansas to Europe

The whole world, especially Europe, was immersed in the First World War when a weapon more lethal than tanks and bombs appeared. ‘The more than 50 million deaths caused by the flu in a few months were about three times more than those resulting from World War I,’ says the author Beatriz Echeverri Dávila, in an article about the Spanish influenza and its consequences.
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A cemetery of victims of the 1918 flu on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. | Shutterstock

Although some hypotheses point to the emergence of the disease in China and others in France or India (none in Spain), the most widely shared opinion is that the 1918 flu first appeared in Haskell, an American town belonging to the State of Kansas. ‘In February 1918 a doctor in Haskell County, Kansas, observed a more severe outbreak of influenza than normal among her patients […] the same ones who were preparing to enlist to fight in the European death camps’, as Echeverri points out in her article.
At that time, the United States was already involved in the war between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Triple Entente: France, Great Britain and Russia (although more countries were joining). The North American country fought on the side of the latter, to which it sent troops that used to land on the French coast. Meanwhile, the cases of that strange flu were spreading from one camp to the other until they reached the East Coast.
Echevarri assures that ‘the large number of sick people among the soldiers did not prevent them from continuing with the massive dispatch of troops, thus spreading the virus first to the military bases and battlefields of Europe, and then to the civilian population’. In this way, and according to this theory, the virus reached European soil from the other side of the Atlantic, from where it spread to the rest of the world.

A historical injustice

spanish flu

Flu ward at Walter Reed Hospital during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, in Washington DC. | Shutterstock

However, the main question arising from this article has not been answered yet: Why did one of the deadliest pandemics in history become known as the Spanish flu if its origin had nothing to do with Spain? As has been said, Europe was immersed in the Great War. The countries affected by the pandemic, almost all of Europe, did not want to spread the news that they had an internal enemy. Beatriz Echeverri points out that ‘this first epidemic wave caused very important problems in the working life of the countries and in the military strategies of the First World War’. And these disruptions, of course, were weak points that they did not want to reveal to the opponent.
Thus, when the pandemic reached Spain between May and June 1918, most of the media had hidden the news. But Spain was neutral and the event spread like wildfire throughout the national press. Everything else is history. The rest of the world echoed the news as if Spain had been the epicenter of the influenza. It goes without saying the name that this disease ended up taking on is nothing less than an injustice that has been perpetuated over time and even reaches the present day.

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