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Episode
48

The Spanish Flu

First published on
April 28, 2020
History
-
22
minutes
World War I
USA
Pandemic

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 infected 1/3 of the world's population, and it's estimated that it killed up to 100 million people.

In today's episode we take a look at what really happened, how it spread so quickly, and what countries did to contain it.

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Transcript

[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Spanish Flu.

[00:00:30] It is by some measures, the world's most devastating pandemic. 

[00:00:35] And of course, knowing a bit more about it is helpful for understanding some of the ways in which we might think about what's going on in the world today. 

[00:00:48] As we will talk about, there are lots of similarities, but also lots of reasons that we shouldn't pay too much attention to what happened during The Spanish Flu. 

[00:01:02] In any case, it is a fascinating story and I'm pretty excited to share this episode with you. 

[00:01:11] Before we get started though, I just wanted to quickly remind you that you can get a copy of the transcript and key vocabulary for this episode over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:24] The transcript is super helpful for following along and the key vocabulary, well, it means that you won't need to pause to look up words and you will build up your vocabulary much more quickly than you would just by listening. 

[00:01:40] So if that sounds right up your street, then head to Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:48] Okay then, The Spanish Flu. 

[00:01:52] Until earlier on this year, The Spanish Flu was something that was somewhat fading from memory, something that you may have heard about, may have read about, but you probably didn't have much of an understanding of what actually happened.

[00:02:14] But then of course the world changed and people were scrambling for their history books to see if there were any lessons from the past that could help us confront the situation we are now in. 

[00:02:30] So let's just start by reminding ourselves of what actually happened. 

[00:02:38] As we know, in 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe and by 1918 much of the world had been dragged into a nasty and fruitless war. 

[00:02:53] Large parts of Europe were devastated and countries and their people were worn down, both physically and mentally, by a war that had dragged on for far longer than anyone had thought. 

[00:03:11] Then in 1918 a strange flu started appearing and people started getting ill and dying at rates that had never previously been seen with the normal flu. 

[00:03:28] There had been strange cases of a flu even earlier, actually, as early as 1916 but it wasn't until 1918 that this new flu really became known and started spreading across the world.

[00:03:49] And over the course of the next year and a half or so, it ravaged the world. 

[00:03:56] Around 500 million people, half a billion people, got it. 

[00:04:03] We will never know exactly how many people died from it, but estimates range from 25 million to a hundred million people. 

[00:04:15] And it lowered the average life expectancy in the United States by more than 12 years.

[00:04:24] It's still not quite clear though exactly where The Spanish Flu started, but we know one thing that may just surprise you and that is that it definitely wasn't Spain. 

[00:04:39] The reason that it was referred to as 'The Spanish Flu' was because the Spanish newspapers were the first to report cases of it, the first cases were reported in Spain. 

[00:04:54] And it wasn't because the Spanish journalists were particularly fast or Spanish doctors were the first to diagnose it.

[00:05:04] It was because Spain was neutral during World War One.

[00:05:09] And because of its neutrality, its press, its newspapers were free to publish whatever stories they wanted.

[00:05:20] When there were the first cases in the US, in France, in Britain, and in Germany, these countries were still right in the middle of war. 

[00:05:31] It was important for morale to be kept up and there was the fear that if it became known that there was another enemy to fight, another dangerous virus that was killing troops, then this could be really detrimental for the morale of the troops and also the morale back home. 

[00:05:55] So for quite a while it was kept quiet. 

[00:05:58] The Spanish were the only ones to report it because they were neutral and didn't have to worry so much about morale.

[00:06:08] There are all sorts of theories about where the virus actually came from, but the evidence for any of them isn't actually strong enough for us to spend too much time talking about today. 

[00:06:23] What is interesting though, and we can of course, draw the parallels between then and now, is what people thought was causing it, where they thought it came from.

[00:06:36] Remember the world had just experienced the First World War, the first conflict that involved such a large number of different countries and a scale of death that hadn't really ever been seen before. 

[00:06:54] Those of you who remember the episode on the poets of World War One will remember some of the ways in which young British soldiers talked about their experience. 

[00:07:07] Trench warfare, poison gas, tanks, barbed wire.

[00:07:13] It was a new kind of war, and there was quite a strong belief that The Spanish Flu, this new influenza that had never been seen in anyone's living memory was a sort of divine punishment for what the world had done. 

[00:07:31] There was also the theory, which is perhaps slightly more credible, or at least based more in the real than the divine, that the influenza had been caused by poisonous gases coming from the battlefields in Northern France. 

[00:07:53] Well, neither of these was true. 

[00:07:57] We understand The Spanish Flu a bit better now, and we now know that it comes from the same strain of virus, the same family of virus as avian flu, H1N1, the swine flu that we saw in 2009, ninety years later. 

[00:08:17] So what did The Spanish Flu do? 

[00:08:23] Well, I think we know broadly the story of that.

[00:08:26] It spread incredibly quickly and infected up to 500 million people, a third of the world's population at the time, and killed up to 100 million people. 

[00:08:40] On one level, it's quite crazy to think that it spread so quickly and so widely given that the world was significantly less connected than it is now. 

[00:08:53] The main theory about why it was able to spread so quickly was that it was spread by soldiers. 

[00:09:01] Soldiers were always in pretty close proximity, they were close to one another, whether that was actually in the trenches or in the barracks, it didn't really matter.

[00:09:14] They lived in close confinement, and this meant that the virus spread very easily from soldier to soldier. 

[00:09:25] Indeed, one of the first times that the virus was actually reported was in an army camp in Kansas in the United States. 

[00:09:37] In this camp, there were around 50,000 soldiers who were waiting to be shipped to Europe to fight.

[00:09:46] Early one morning in March, 1918, a soldier reported himself to the army doctor with an influenza, and by lunchtime, the very same day the army hospital was completely overflowing with infected soldiers. 

[00:10:07] And soldiers were really the only people who were actually traveling at the time. 

[00:10:15] On one level this just means that they are the ones who would be sent to different places taking the virus with them. 

[00:10:24] But it's actually more interesting than this. 

[00:10:27] One of the main theories about why The Spanish Flu was so much worse than other influenzas was precisely because of the way in which soldiers were dealt with and how the flu virus normally mutates, how it changes. 

[00:10:47] So, as you may be aware, a virus typically mutates, it changes as it is passed from person to person. 

[00:10:57] With normal life and in a civilian environment, a non-war environment, like we are in now, what normally happens is that those people who have the worse mutations of the virus stay home or are confined to a hospital.

[00:11:18] So they are relatively isolated and it is less likely that they pass the virus on to anyone else. 

[00:11:27] And those people that have the more mild versions of the virus tend to continue their normal life, and so if they spread the virus to others, they are spreading the more mild version of it. 

[00:11:46] But with soldiers in World War One things were the opposite. 

[00:11:52] The soldiers who had the mild versions of it stayed to fight. 

[00:11:58] The army needed every soldier that could fight, and if they had a mild flu, well that wasn't bad enough to send them away from the front lines

[00:12:09] And the soldiers who had the worse, more deadly mutations of it were sent away in packed trains and boats back home where they then passed the stronger, more deadly mutation of the virus on to others.

[00:12:30] The result of this was that The Spanish Flu was even more deadly during the so-called second wave, which occurred during the autumn and winter of 1918 after troops had started to be sent home. 

[00:12:49] One thing that I found really interesting when researching more about The Spanish Flu was how many governments actually did a quite good job of containing it and implemented almost exactly the same sort of measures as are being done in lots of different countries around the world today.

[00:13:14] It's obviously not revolutionary and doesn't take a PhD in epidemiology to figure out, but back in 1918 over a hundred years ago, the main way in which governments tried to stop the spread of the virus was through what we are now calling social distancing.

[00:13:35] They had figured out that the virus was transmitted through the air, through breathing, coughing, or sneezing. 

[00:13:44] And exactly as we are doing now, they had figured out that if you can stop people coming into contact with each other, then that is pretty much the most effective way to squash it, to eradicate the virus. 

[00:14:01] And they had to contain it, they had to stop it being passed from person to person, as there was another similarity to the situation that we are in now. 

[00:14:13] They also didn't have a vaccine

[00:14:16] But the other thing that they didn't have, which we of course do have now, is some kind of global health authority that can coordinate a response across the whole world.

[00:14:31] Back in 1918 it was every country for itself. 

[00:14:35] There was no WHO until 1948, and communication and collaboration between doctors and health officials was a whole lot more complicated than it is now. 

[00:14:50] So the response was much more contained on a country or even municipal or city level.

[00:14:58] Different cities in the US would respond in different ways. 

[00:15:03] There wasn't really a coordinated response whereby every city employed the same measures, which is another interesting parallel with today's situation perhaps. 

[00:15:16] But some of the strategies that they implemented back then were also quite ingenious

[00:15:23] In New York, for example, to cut down the amount of people traveling in rush hour they made different types of shops and offices open and close at different times. 

[00:15:35] Another controversial thing that was done, and it's still debated whether this was actually a good policy, was that in New York the schools were kept open, they weren't closed. 

[00:15:49] The theory behind this was that in New York there was a very large immigrant population who lived in very cramped, closed conditions, and that the children would be better outside that situation than in it. 

[00:16:09] Another reason that they decided to do this was also that the authorities could pass messages to the immigrant population about the virus through the children.

[00:16:23] Lots of these immigrants had very poor English, and so their children would learn about the latest advice at school, then they would return home and inform their parents. 

[00:16:37] So that's one quite interesting policy, although, as I said, it's still debated whether it actually did any good. 

[00:16:48] There are, however, a few decisions that cities took back then that we can look back at and say, that seemed to work or that didn't work.

[00:16:59] And specifically the cities in the United States that closed down for the longest, versus the ones that opened up quickly or didn't really close at all. 

[00:17:10] It might not surprise you to find out that the ones that kept closed, that kept their social distancing rules for longer, such as St Louis, not only, lost fewer lives, but had a stronger economic recovery in the long term. 

[00:17:28] So, closing down actually helps you bounce back and grow faster afterwards. 

[00:17:36] This is of course something that public health officials, economists, policy makers and politicians in the United States are well aware of, but there is an election this year and telling people to stay at home and not allowing businesses to reopen, that isn't always a particularly popular decision with people, even if our experience of the world's most deadly pandemic suggests that it might be the better decision, both from a public health point of view and economic point of view. 

[00:18:12] One other fascinating story about The Spanish Flu with which we will end today's podcast, and I will leave you to draw any parallels you want with what is going on today, is how all sorts of non-qualified people start suggesting some very strange cures for it, and they all seem to have an ulterior motive. 

[00:18:40] On June the 28th, 1918 there was a notice in the British papers that advised readers of the symptoms of the flu and gave them some tips and suggestions on things they could do to prevent it. 

[00:18:58] The notice stated that a certain type of mint, a sweet, a candy, was the best way to prevent the infection, and that everyone, including children, should take at least five of these mints per day until they felt better.

[00:19:16] However, it turned out that this wasn't an official government notice. 

[00:19:21] Not at all. 

[00:19:22] It was actually an advertisement, an advert, by a company called Formamints, who surprise surprise, made the mints. 

[00:19:34] Well, if I bring it back to what's going on today, I guess you are probably better off sucking mints than doing some of the other things that have been suggested by various people in positions of power.

[00:19:49] I think we both know who I'm talking about here. 

[00:19:52] And with that little anecdote comes the end of this introduction to The Spanish Flu and some of the more interesting stories behind it. 

[00:20:04] It is a fascinating period in human history and for obvious reasons it's something that policy makers, public health officials and politicians have started to pay a lot closer attention to.

[00:20:18] Yes, there are of course lessons that we can learn from history and The Spanish Flu is no exception, but we should be a little wary of reading too much into it .

[00:20:29] The world was a very different place and we are significantly better equipped now to deal with a pandemic than the world was a hundred years ago, after four years of better fighting. 

[00:20:43] But even after all of these scientific and technological inventions, I find it quite refreshing, in one way, to think about the fact that the guidance on how to beat this pandemic, this influenza, is basically exactly the same as it was a hundred years ago, and that is stay inside, cover your face and avoid contact with people if you possibly can.

[00:21:11] So I'll just finish by saying that I hope you're keeping well wherever you are. 

[00:21:17] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English.

[00:21:22] I am Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


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[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Spanish Flu.

[00:00:30] It is by some measures, the world's most devastating pandemic. 

[00:00:35] And of course, knowing a bit more about it is helpful for understanding some of the ways in which we might think about what's going on in the world today. 

[00:00:48] As we will talk about, there are lots of similarities, but also lots of reasons that we shouldn't pay too much attention to what happened during The Spanish Flu. 

[00:01:02] In any case, it is a fascinating story and I'm pretty excited to share this episode with you. 

[00:01:11] Before we get started though, I just wanted to quickly remind you that you can get a copy of the transcript and key vocabulary for this episode over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:24] The transcript is super helpful for following along and the key vocabulary, well, it means that you won't need to pause to look up words and you will build up your vocabulary much more quickly than you would just by listening. 

[00:01:40] So if that sounds right up your street, then head to Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:48] Okay then, The Spanish Flu. 

[00:01:52] Until earlier on this year, The Spanish Flu was something that was somewhat fading from memory, something that you may have heard about, may have read about, but you probably didn't have much of an understanding of what actually happened.

[00:02:14] But then of course the world changed and people were scrambling for their history books to see if there were any lessons from the past that could help us confront the situation we are now in. 

[00:02:30] So let's just start by reminding ourselves of what actually happened. 

[00:02:38] As we know, in 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe and by 1918 much of the world had been dragged into a nasty and fruitless war. 

[00:02:53] Large parts of Europe were devastated and countries and their people were worn down, both physically and mentally, by a war that had dragged on for far longer than anyone had thought. 

[00:03:11] Then in 1918 a strange flu started appearing and people started getting ill and dying at rates that had never previously been seen with the normal flu. 

[00:03:28] There had been strange cases of a flu even earlier, actually, as early as 1916 but it wasn't until 1918 that this new flu really became known and started spreading across the world.

[00:03:49] And over the course of the next year and a half or so, it ravaged the world. 

[00:03:56] Around 500 million people, half a billion people, got it. 

[00:04:03] We will never know exactly how many people died from it, but estimates range from 25 million to a hundred million people. 

[00:04:15] And it lowered the average life expectancy in the United States by more than 12 years.

[00:04:24] It's still not quite clear though exactly where The Spanish Flu started, but we know one thing that may just surprise you and that is that it definitely wasn't Spain. 

[00:04:39] The reason that it was referred to as 'The Spanish Flu' was because the Spanish newspapers were the first to report cases of it, the first cases were reported in Spain. 

[00:04:54] And it wasn't because the Spanish journalists were particularly fast or Spanish doctors were the first to diagnose it.

[00:05:04] It was because Spain was neutral during World War One.

[00:05:09] And because of its neutrality, its press, its newspapers were free to publish whatever stories they wanted.

[00:05:20] When there were the first cases in the US, in France, in Britain, and in Germany, these countries were still right in the middle of war. 

[00:05:31] It was important for morale to be kept up and there was the fear that if it became known that there was another enemy to fight, another dangerous virus that was killing troops, then this could be really detrimental for the morale of the troops and also the morale back home. 

[00:05:55] So for quite a while it was kept quiet. 

[00:05:58] The Spanish were the only ones to report it because they were neutral and didn't have to worry so much about morale.

[00:06:08] There are all sorts of theories about where the virus actually came from, but the evidence for any of them isn't actually strong enough for us to spend too much time talking about today. 

[00:06:23] What is interesting though, and we can of course, draw the parallels between then and now, is what people thought was causing it, where they thought it came from.

[00:06:36] Remember the world had just experienced the First World War, the first conflict that involved such a large number of different countries and a scale of death that hadn't really ever been seen before. 

[00:06:54] Those of you who remember the episode on the poets of World War One will remember some of the ways in which young British soldiers talked about their experience. 

[00:07:07] Trench warfare, poison gas, tanks, barbed wire.

[00:07:13] It was a new kind of war, and there was quite a strong belief that The Spanish Flu, this new influenza that had never been seen in anyone's living memory was a sort of divine punishment for what the world had done. 

[00:07:31] There was also the theory, which is perhaps slightly more credible, or at least based more in the real than the divine, that the influenza had been caused by poisonous gases coming from the battlefields in Northern France. 

[00:07:53] Well, neither of these was true. 

[00:07:57] We understand The Spanish Flu a bit better now, and we now know that it comes from the same strain of virus, the same family of virus as avian flu, H1N1, the swine flu that we saw in 2009, ninety years later. 

[00:08:17] So what did The Spanish Flu do? 

[00:08:23] Well, I think we know broadly the story of that.

[00:08:26] It spread incredibly quickly and infected up to 500 million people, a third of the world's population at the time, and killed up to 100 million people. 

[00:08:40] On one level, it's quite crazy to think that it spread so quickly and so widely given that the world was significantly less connected than it is now. 

[00:08:53] The main theory about why it was able to spread so quickly was that it was spread by soldiers. 

[00:09:01] Soldiers were always in pretty close proximity, they were close to one another, whether that was actually in the trenches or in the barracks, it didn't really matter.

[00:09:14] They lived in close confinement, and this meant that the virus spread very easily from soldier to soldier. 

[00:09:25] Indeed, one of the first times that the virus was actually reported was in an army camp in Kansas in the United States. 

[00:09:37] In this camp, there were around 50,000 soldiers who were waiting to be shipped to Europe to fight.

[00:09:46] Early one morning in March, 1918, a soldier reported himself to the army doctor with an influenza, and by lunchtime, the very same day the army hospital was completely overflowing with infected soldiers. 

[00:10:07] And soldiers were really the only people who were actually traveling at the time. 

[00:10:15] On one level this just means that they are the ones who would be sent to different places taking the virus with them. 

[00:10:24] But it's actually more interesting than this. 

[00:10:27] One of the main theories about why The Spanish Flu was so much worse than other influenzas was precisely because of the way in which soldiers were dealt with and how the flu virus normally mutates, how it changes. 

[00:10:47] So, as you may be aware, a virus typically mutates, it changes as it is passed from person to person. 

[00:10:57] With normal life and in a civilian environment, a non-war environment, like we are in now, what normally happens is that those people who have the worse mutations of the virus stay home or are confined to a hospital.

[00:11:18] So they are relatively isolated and it is less likely that they pass the virus on to anyone else. 

[00:11:27] And those people that have the more mild versions of the virus tend to continue their normal life, and so if they spread the virus to others, they are spreading the more mild version of it. 

[00:11:46] But with soldiers in World War One things were the opposite. 

[00:11:52] The soldiers who had the mild versions of it stayed to fight. 

[00:11:58] The army needed every soldier that could fight, and if they had a mild flu, well that wasn't bad enough to send them away from the front lines

[00:12:09] And the soldiers who had the worse, more deadly mutations of it were sent away in packed trains and boats back home where they then passed the stronger, more deadly mutation of the virus on to others.

[00:12:30] The result of this was that The Spanish Flu was even more deadly during the so-called second wave, which occurred during the autumn and winter of 1918 after troops had started to be sent home. 

[00:12:49] One thing that I found really interesting when researching more about The Spanish Flu was how many governments actually did a quite good job of containing it and implemented almost exactly the same sort of measures as are being done in lots of different countries around the world today.

[00:13:14] It's obviously not revolutionary and doesn't take a PhD in epidemiology to figure out, but back in 1918 over a hundred years ago, the main way in which governments tried to stop the spread of the virus was through what we are now calling social distancing.

[00:13:35] They had figured out that the virus was transmitted through the air, through breathing, coughing, or sneezing. 

[00:13:44] And exactly as we are doing now, they had figured out that if you can stop people coming into contact with each other, then that is pretty much the most effective way to squash it, to eradicate the virus. 

[00:14:01] And they had to contain it, they had to stop it being passed from person to person, as there was another similarity to the situation that we are in now. 

[00:14:13] They also didn't have a vaccine

[00:14:16] But the other thing that they didn't have, which we of course do have now, is some kind of global health authority that can coordinate a response across the whole world.

[00:14:31] Back in 1918 it was every country for itself. 

[00:14:35] There was no WHO until 1948, and communication and collaboration between doctors and health officials was a whole lot more complicated than it is now. 

[00:14:50] So the response was much more contained on a country or even municipal or city level.

[00:14:58] Different cities in the US would respond in different ways. 

[00:15:03] There wasn't really a coordinated response whereby every city employed the same measures, which is another interesting parallel with today's situation perhaps. 

[00:15:16] But some of the strategies that they implemented back then were also quite ingenious

[00:15:23] In New York, for example, to cut down the amount of people traveling in rush hour they made different types of shops and offices open and close at different times. 

[00:15:35] Another controversial thing that was done, and it's still debated whether this was actually a good policy, was that in New York the schools were kept open, they weren't closed. 

[00:15:49] The theory behind this was that in New York there was a very large immigrant population who lived in very cramped, closed conditions, and that the children would be better outside that situation than in it. 

[00:16:09] Another reason that they decided to do this was also that the authorities could pass messages to the immigrant population about the virus through the children.

[00:16:23] Lots of these immigrants had very poor English, and so their children would learn about the latest advice at school, then they would return home and inform their parents. 

[00:16:37] So that's one quite interesting policy, although, as I said, it's still debated whether it actually did any good. 

[00:16:48] There are, however, a few decisions that cities took back then that we can look back at and say, that seemed to work or that didn't work.

[00:16:59] And specifically the cities in the United States that closed down for the longest, versus the ones that opened up quickly or didn't really close at all. 

[00:17:10] It might not surprise you to find out that the ones that kept closed, that kept their social distancing rules for longer, such as St Louis, not only, lost fewer lives, but had a stronger economic recovery in the long term. 

[00:17:28] So, closing down actually helps you bounce back and grow faster afterwards. 

[00:17:36] This is of course something that public health officials, economists, policy makers and politicians in the United States are well aware of, but there is an election this year and telling people to stay at home and not allowing businesses to reopen, that isn't always a particularly popular decision with people, even if our experience of the world's most deadly pandemic suggests that it might be the better decision, both from a public health point of view and economic point of view. 

[00:18:12] One other fascinating story about The Spanish Flu with which we will end today's podcast, and I will leave you to draw any parallels you want with what is going on today, is how all sorts of non-qualified people start suggesting some very strange cures for it, and they all seem to have an ulterior motive. 

[00:18:40] On June the 28th, 1918 there was a notice in the British papers that advised readers of the symptoms of the flu and gave them some tips and suggestions on things they could do to prevent it. 

[00:18:58] The notice stated that a certain type of mint, a sweet, a candy, was the best way to prevent the infection, and that everyone, including children, should take at least five of these mints per day until they felt better.

[00:19:16] However, it turned out that this wasn't an official government notice. 

[00:19:21] Not at all. 

[00:19:22] It was actually an advertisement, an advert, by a company called Formamints, who surprise surprise, made the mints. 

[00:19:34] Well, if I bring it back to what's going on today, I guess you are probably better off sucking mints than doing some of the other things that have been suggested by various people in positions of power.

[00:19:49] I think we both know who I'm talking about here. 

[00:19:52] And with that little anecdote comes the end of this introduction to The Spanish Flu and some of the more interesting stories behind it. 

[00:20:04] It is a fascinating period in human history and for obvious reasons it's something that policy makers, public health officials and politicians have started to pay a lot closer attention to.

[00:20:18] Yes, there are of course lessons that we can learn from history and The Spanish Flu is no exception, but we should be a little wary of reading too much into it .

[00:20:29] The world was a very different place and we are significantly better equipped now to deal with a pandemic than the world was a hundred years ago, after four years of better fighting. 

[00:20:43] But even after all of these scientific and technological inventions, I find it quite refreshing, in one way, to think about the fact that the guidance on how to beat this pandemic, this influenza, is basically exactly the same as it was a hundred years ago, and that is stay inside, cover your face and avoid contact with people if you possibly can.

[00:21:11] So I'll just finish by saying that I hope you're keeping well wherever you are. 

[00:21:17] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English.

[00:21:22] I am Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:23] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Spanish Flu.

[00:00:30] It is by some measures, the world's most devastating pandemic. 

[00:00:35] And of course, knowing a bit more about it is helpful for understanding some of the ways in which we might think about what's going on in the world today. 

[00:00:48] As we will talk about, there are lots of similarities, but also lots of reasons that we shouldn't pay too much attention to what happened during The Spanish Flu. 

[00:01:02] In any case, it is a fascinating story and I'm pretty excited to share this episode with you. 

[00:01:11] Before we get started though, I just wanted to quickly remind you that you can get a copy of the transcript and key vocabulary for this episode over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:24] The transcript is super helpful for following along and the key vocabulary, well, it means that you won't need to pause to look up words and you will build up your vocabulary much more quickly than you would just by listening. 

[00:01:40] So if that sounds right up your street, then head to Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:48] Okay then, The Spanish Flu. 

[00:01:52] Until earlier on this year, The Spanish Flu was something that was somewhat fading from memory, something that you may have heard about, may have read about, but you probably didn't have much of an understanding of what actually happened.

[00:02:14] But then of course the world changed and people were scrambling for their history books to see if there were any lessons from the past that could help us confront the situation we are now in. 

[00:02:30] So let's just start by reminding ourselves of what actually happened. 

[00:02:38] As we know, in 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe and by 1918 much of the world had been dragged into a nasty and fruitless war. 

[00:02:53] Large parts of Europe were devastated and countries and their people were worn down, both physically and mentally, by a war that had dragged on for far longer than anyone had thought. 

[00:03:11] Then in 1918 a strange flu started appearing and people started getting ill and dying at rates that had never previously been seen with the normal flu. 

[00:03:28] There had been strange cases of a flu even earlier, actually, as early as 1916 but it wasn't until 1918 that this new flu really became known and started spreading across the world.

[00:03:49] And over the course of the next year and a half or so, it ravaged the world. 

[00:03:56] Around 500 million people, half a billion people, got it. 

[00:04:03] We will never know exactly how many people died from it, but estimates range from 25 million to a hundred million people. 

[00:04:15] And it lowered the average life expectancy in the United States by more than 12 years.

[00:04:24] It's still not quite clear though exactly where The Spanish Flu started, but we know one thing that may just surprise you and that is that it definitely wasn't Spain. 

[00:04:39] The reason that it was referred to as 'The Spanish Flu' was because the Spanish newspapers were the first to report cases of it, the first cases were reported in Spain. 

[00:04:54] And it wasn't because the Spanish journalists were particularly fast or Spanish doctors were the first to diagnose it.

[00:05:04] It was because Spain was neutral during World War One.

[00:05:09] And because of its neutrality, its press, its newspapers were free to publish whatever stories they wanted.

[00:05:20] When there were the first cases in the US, in France, in Britain, and in Germany, these countries were still right in the middle of war. 

[00:05:31] It was important for morale to be kept up and there was the fear that if it became known that there was another enemy to fight, another dangerous virus that was killing troops, then this could be really detrimental for the morale of the troops and also the morale back home. 

[00:05:55] So for quite a while it was kept quiet. 

[00:05:58] The Spanish were the only ones to report it because they were neutral and didn't have to worry so much about morale.

[00:06:08] There are all sorts of theories about where the virus actually came from, but the evidence for any of them isn't actually strong enough for us to spend too much time talking about today. 

[00:06:23] What is interesting though, and we can of course, draw the parallels between then and now, is what people thought was causing it, where they thought it came from.

[00:06:36] Remember the world had just experienced the First World War, the first conflict that involved such a large number of different countries and a scale of death that hadn't really ever been seen before. 

[00:06:54] Those of you who remember the episode on the poets of World War One will remember some of the ways in which young British soldiers talked about their experience. 

[00:07:07] Trench warfare, poison gas, tanks, barbed wire.

[00:07:13] It was a new kind of war, and there was quite a strong belief that The Spanish Flu, this new influenza that had never been seen in anyone's living memory was a sort of divine punishment for what the world had done. 

[00:07:31] There was also the theory, which is perhaps slightly more credible, or at least based more in the real than the divine, that the influenza had been caused by poisonous gases coming from the battlefields in Northern France. 

[00:07:53] Well, neither of these was true. 

[00:07:57] We understand The Spanish Flu a bit better now, and we now know that it comes from the same strain of virus, the same family of virus as avian flu, H1N1, the swine flu that we saw in 2009, ninety years later. 

[00:08:17] So what did The Spanish Flu do? 

[00:08:23] Well, I think we know broadly the story of that.

[00:08:26] It spread incredibly quickly and infected up to 500 million people, a third of the world's population at the time, and killed up to 100 million people. 

[00:08:40] On one level, it's quite crazy to think that it spread so quickly and so widely given that the world was significantly less connected than it is now. 

[00:08:53] The main theory about why it was able to spread so quickly was that it was spread by soldiers. 

[00:09:01] Soldiers were always in pretty close proximity, they were close to one another, whether that was actually in the trenches or in the barracks, it didn't really matter.

[00:09:14] They lived in close confinement, and this meant that the virus spread very easily from soldier to soldier. 

[00:09:25] Indeed, one of the first times that the virus was actually reported was in an army camp in Kansas in the United States. 

[00:09:37] In this camp, there were around 50,000 soldiers who were waiting to be shipped to Europe to fight.

[00:09:46] Early one morning in March, 1918, a soldier reported himself to the army doctor with an influenza, and by lunchtime, the very same day the army hospital was completely overflowing with infected soldiers. 

[00:10:07] And soldiers were really the only people who were actually traveling at the time. 

[00:10:15] On one level this just means that they are the ones who would be sent to different places taking the virus with them. 

[00:10:24] But it's actually more interesting than this. 

[00:10:27] One of the main theories about why The Spanish Flu was so much worse than other influenzas was precisely because of the way in which soldiers were dealt with and how the flu virus normally mutates, how it changes. 

[00:10:47] So, as you may be aware, a virus typically mutates, it changes as it is passed from person to person. 

[00:10:57] With normal life and in a civilian environment, a non-war environment, like we are in now, what normally happens is that those people who have the worse mutations of the virus stay home or are confined to a hospital.

[00:11:18] So they are relatively isolated and it is less likely that they pass the virus on to anyone else. 

[00:11:27] And those people that have the more mild versions of the virus tend to continue their normal life, and so if they spread the virus to others, they are spreading the more mild version of it. 

[00:11:46] But with soldiers in World War One things were the opposite. 

[00:11:52] The soldiers who had the mild versions of it stayed to fight. 

[00:11:58] The army needed every soldier that could fight, and if they had a mild flu, well that wasn't bad enough to send them away from the front lines

[00:12:09] And the soldiers who had the worse, more deadly mutations of it were sent away in packed trains and boats back home where they then passed the stronger, more deadly mutation of the virus on to others.

[00:12:30] The result of this was that The Spanish Flu was even more deadly during the so-called second wave, which occurred during the autumn and winter of 1918 after troops had started to be sent home. 

[00:12:49] One thing that I found really interesting when researching more about The Spanish Flu was how many governments actually did a quite good job of containing it and implemented almost exactly the same sort of measures as are being done in lots of different countries around the world today.

[00:13:14] It's obviously not revolutionary and doesn't take a PhD in epidemiology to figure out, but back in 1918 over a hundred years ago, the main way in which governments tried to stop the spread of the virus was through what we are now calling social distancing.

[00:13:35] They had figured out that the virus was transmitted through the air, through breathing, coughing, or sneezing. 

[00:13:44] And exactly as we are doing now, they had figured out that if you can stop people coming into contact with each other, then that is pretty much the most effective way to squash it, to eradicate the virus. 

[00:14:01] And they had to contain it, they had to stop it being passed from person to person, as there was another similarity to the situation that we are in now. 

[00:14:13] They also didn't have a vaccine

[00:14:16] But the other thing that they didn't have, which we of course do have now, is some kind of global health authority that can coordinate a response across the whole world.

[00:14:31] Back in 1918 it was every country for itself. 

[00:14:35] There was no WHO until 1948, and communication and collaboration between doctors and health officials was a whole lot more complicated than it is now. 

[00:14:50] So the response was much more contained on a country or even municipal or city level.

[00:14:58] Different cities in the US would respond in different ways. 

[00:15:03] There wasn't really a coordinated response whereby every city employed the same measures, which is another interesting parallel with today's situation perhaps. 

[00:15:16] But some of the strategies that they implemented back then were also quite ingenious

[00:15:23] In New York, for example, to cut down the amount of people traveling in rush hour they made different types of shops and offices open and close at different times. 

[00:15:35] Another controversial thing that was done, and it's still debated whether this was actually a good policy, was that in New York the schools were kept open, they weren't closed. 

[00:15:49] The theory behind this was that in New York there was a very large immigrant population who lived in very cramped, closed conditions, and that the children would be better outside that situation than in it. 

[00:16:09] Another reason that they decided to do this was also that the authorities could pass messages to the immigrant population about the virus through the children.

[00:16:23] Lots of these immigrants had very poor English, and so their children would learn about the latest advice at school, then they would return home and inform their parents. 

[00:16:37] So that's one quite interesting policy, although, as I said, it's still debated whether it actually did any good. 

[00:16:48] There are, however, a few decisions that cities took back then that we can look back at and say, that seemed to work or that didn't work.

[00:16:59] And specifically the cities in the United States that closed down for the longest, versus the ones that opened up quickly or didn't really close at all. 

[00:17:10] It might not surprise you to find out that the ones that kept closed, that kept their social distancing rules for longer, such as St Louis, not only, lost fewer lives, but had a stronger economic recovery in the long term. 

[00:17:28] So, closing down actually helps you bounce back and grow faster afterwards. 

[00:17:36] This is of course something that public health officials, economists, policy makers and politicians in the United States are well aware of, but there is an election this year and telling people to stay at home and not allowing businesses to reopen, that isn't always a particularly popular decision with people, even if our experience of the world's most deadly pandemic suggests that it might be the better decision, both from a public health point of view and economic point of view. 

[00:18:12] One other fascinating story about The Spanish Flu with which we will end today's podcast, and I will leave you to draw any parallels you want with what is going on today, is how all sorts of non-qualified people start suggesting some very strange cures for it, and they all seem to have an ulterior motive. 

[00:18:40] On June the 28th, 1918 there was a notice in the British papers that advised readers of the symptoms of the flu and gave them some tips and suggestions on things they could do to prevent it. 

[00:18:58] The notice stated that a certain type of mint, a sweet, a candy, was the best way to prevent the infection, and that everyone, including children, should take at least five of these mints per day until they felt better.

[00:19:16] However, it turned out that this wasn't an official government notice. 

[00:19:21] Not at all. 

[00:19:22] It was actually an advertisement, an advert, by a company called Formamints, who surprise surprise, made the mints. 

[00:19:34] Well, if I bring it back to what's going on today, I guess you are probably better off sucking mints than doing some of the other things that have been suggested by various people in positions of power.

[00:19:49] I think we both know who I'm talking about here. 

[00:19:52] And with that little anecdote comes the end of this introduction to The Spanish Flu and some of the more interesting stories behind it. 

[00:20:04] It is a fascinating period in human history and for obvious reasons it's something that policy makers, public health officials and politicians have started to pay a lot closer attention to.

[00:20:18] Yes, there are of course lessons that we can learn from history and The Spanish Flu is no exception, but we should be a little wary of reading too much into it .

[00:20:29] The world was a very different place and we are significantly better equipped now to deal with a pandemic than the world was a hundred years ago, after four years of better fighting. 

[00:20:43] But even after all of these scientific and technological inventions, I find it quite refreshing, in one way, to think about the fact that the guidance on how to beat this pandemic, this influenza, is basically exactly the same as it was a hundred years ago, and that is stay inside, cover your face and avoid contact with people if you possibly can.

[00:21:11] So I'll just finish by saying that I hope you're keeping well wherever you are. 

[00:21:17] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English.

[00:21:22] I am Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]