- Angel Bermúdez (@angelbermudez)
- BBC News World
It was such a traumatic event that no one wanted to remember it for half a century.
Influenza pandemic between 1918 and 1919 it was the largest in the world and one of the worst in human history.
Known as the “Spanish flu,” the disease has caused about 25 million deaths, but the actual number is estimated to be as high as 40-50 million.
“In the U.S. alone, 675,000 people were killed, or even more. It was a huge loss, but it can’t be separated from what happened with the First World War. These two events were completely linked.” says historian Kenneth Davis, author of the book More deadly than war (“More deadly than war”, free translation), BBC News Mundo (BBC Spanish service).
As the war ended in November 1918, the flu continued to die and the conflict caused more deaths worldwide than the conflict itself.
“Life was completely stopped in the United States and many other parts of the world. People couldn’t go to church or move freely, they had to wear masks, etc. All the things we associate with the current pandemic happened. because the country was much less urbanized. ‘
Society then reacted with a tremendous desire to “get back to normal,” an idea that was the motto of Warren Harding’s campaign, which won the 1920 U.S. presidential election.
“People wanted to forget about the war, the pandemic, and the horrific losses, but they also wanted to have fun,” says Davis, who sees a clear link between these traumas and the creation of the legendary “20s,” a time associated with time. jazz and agitation.Nightlife.
Pandemics and wars brought about a change in the way women and society perceived them, as they were now involved in productive activities, working in factories, offices and hospitals to deal with these events. “It is no coincidence that women have been allowed to vote in the United States at this time,” says the historian.
In the case of the US, this double trauma led to other controversial changes: the rise of supporters of isolationism in the face of the world and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
“People thought that dangerous ideas, such as the pandemic, were coming from outside, so many wanted to close the country. they were seen as dangerous, dirty, and sick, ”says Davis.
As for the Ku Klux Clan, he explained that his rise was due to the fear that the African American soldiers who had gone to war in Europe would return to the country demanding more rights.
“The growth of the Ku Klux Klan was also driven by the rejection of foreigners and immigrants, as there was a strong nativist movement in the country, which reflected the isolationist tendency,” he added.
But what were the major health changes that the 1918 pandemic brought to people’s lives? Take a look at the five health habits that have changed since then.
1. Disposal of disposable cups
Before the 1918 flu pandemic, it was common to have a kind of metal cup used to serve and drink water in public buildings and train stations in the United States. The cup was the same for everyone, so it was used by dozens or hundreds of people every day.
This unhealthy habit was eradicated with the advent of the pandemic when these metal cups were replaced by Dixie disposable cups, which have since become ubiquitous.
Although it was created in 1907 and promoted as a Health Kup as a way to protect against germs, these disposable cups have not won over consumers.
The pandemic was dubbed Dixie and was aggressively promoted in advertisements as a necessary measure to protect against the disease. Since then, they have become a hit that would be exported worldwide.
2. Cover your mouth when coughing and sneezing
Another health habit that spread during the flu pandemic was the habit of covering your mouth or nose with a cloth.
“Coughing and sneezing spread the disease” was one of the slogans adopted by U.S. health officials during the pandemic.
The message printed on the posters warned that coughing and sneezing was “as dangerous as a poisonous bomb”.
3. Avoid spitting in public places
Until the 1918 flu pandemic, spitting in public was considered a socially acceptable practice.
For decades, campaigns against tuberculosis have led to movements to ban the practice and the imposition of sanctions in some cities, but it has not been possible to eradicate it.
“You were fined $ 1 if you spit on the NYC subway and had to appear in court. Across the country, especially in places like Philadelphia where there has been a strong pandemic, there were signs everywhere warning that the pipe is dying,” says Kenneth Davis.
The historian recalled that at that time many people were in the habit of chewing tobacco, so they often spit, but after the pandemic many people realized that spitting in public from a health point of view was not advisable or acceptable.
4. Ventilate spaces
Although doctors began to understand that there were a number of airborne diseases in 1918, Davis explained that there was still some confusion as to how this happened.
“If you were on a tram in a city like Philadelphia or New York and it was getting cold, you wouldn’t want to open the windows, and there were some doctors who recommended keeping it closed because they were afraid the virus would spread. [circulando]. And it was really like that, but because of the tight breathing of others, not because of the wind, ”says Davis.
“The question of whether to keep the windows open or closed was a controversial topic among doctors. Over time, it was understood that fresh air and sunlight were very good for patients, but the practice was to close the windows for a long time. it ended up being covered and often dehydrated by the fever. Sometimes the cure was worse than the disease, ”he says.
But in 1918 and 1919, the idea of keeping the windows open to prevent pollution gained momentum. “Keep your bedroom windows open! Avoid the flu, pneumonia and tuberculosis,” read the posters on public transportation.
5. A heater under the window
The practice of opening room ventilation windows led to another practice that transformed the design of the American home: the installation of a steel heater under the windows.
As health authorities advised to keep the windows open even on the coldest days of winter, the engineers looked for ways to keep the rooms warm even in these situations. The result was to put the radiator in place. A practice that continues to this day.
“The heater was put under the window because they thought it was the most efficient way to heat the cold air coming in through the window,” Davis says.
The last health habit that arose during the flu pandemic was to wear masks, even if they did not continue over time.
The historian points out that they were “relatively primitive” compared to today. People were expected to take it home with layers of gauze or cloth and use it before cleaning it before putting it back on.
“Clearly they weren’t as efficient as an N95 and few people took care to do and clean them properly,” Davis says.
However, there have been high-profile cases, such as in San Francisco, where authorities complied with strict regulations on the use of masks and managed to keep infection and death rates low.
“Then they relaxed the rules and had a big death toll because people didn’t want to put on masks again after they stopped using them. They refused to use a lot of the arguments we hear now. The masks were very clear. They were very effective where they were needed.” God.
Although these public health habits were embedded in everyday life as learned from the 1918 pandemic, Davis noted that the trauma was so severe that, at least in the United States, the episode was discarded for decades and only half a century later, the scientific community sought to review the issue. .
“American society went through something terrible that I didn’t want to repeat, but I didn’t want to think about it either, and I think that’s why this pandemic was long forgotten.” says Davis.
“When I wrote my book, I met a lot of families and they told me that they knew my grandmother had died of the flu, but no one knew about it because it was something they didn’t talk about. You wanted a dangerous secret family. in half, ”he concluded.
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