Jun 1, 2020
From the spring of 1918 through the spring of 1919 an influenza epidemic spread all over the world, bringing about the death of at least 50 million, perhaps 100 million. Combined with World War I, it revealed the barbarism to which capitalism had descended. But it also shines a light on the current situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic in a world still dominated by this barbaric social system.
World War I was a struggle among the main industrial powers to re-divide the world. It was the most terrible, bloody conflict known up until that time. Overturning many aspects of human life for a whole historic period, it laid bare the abject, criminal nature of the capitalist social order, and it provoked a powerful revolutionary wave that shook the world for several years, including first of all in Russia itself, devastated by the war.
The war was accompanied by the most destructive epidemic humanity had ever faced. Its frightening cost in human life, perhaps four times as great as that of the war, resulted in great measure from the way the capitalist economy itself was organized, from the imperialist looting of the world, and from the policy of the different states, serving the interests of their own capitalist class.
Wherever the virus that caused the flu originated, it is certain that the war considerably accelerated the flu’s spread into a pandemic, enormously increasing its devastation.
The first known appearance of this influenza came at the gigantic American army boot camp at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918. As the troops who were infected moved, the flu moved with them, jumping to East Coast ports where the American “expeditionary” force for the “European war” was being staged.
By the end of May, half of all American troops had been infected. But American authorities denied there was an epidemic. The Secretary of Defense testified at the end of June that the troops had “never exhibited any signs of illness whatsoever.” The Wilson Administration had already confronted popular opposition when they announced their intention in 1917 to register men for the draft. To admit the existence of the flu in 1918 might have jeopardized U.S. plans to intervene in this war between the big imperialist powers for supremacy.
U.S. troops arrived in Brest, France, in June 1918, bringing with them the first wave of the flu that was to touch the European continent.
There are conflicting theories about where and how the virus itself originated. But wherever it was, the movement of troops, going into combat and returning from the front, is what spread the epidemic beyond the U.S. and Europe and into the African continent, into the Pacific, into Asia, and even into the Arctic, then finally back to the U.S.
Up until the armistice of 1918, military censorship prevented populations in all the contending powers from being warned about any illness, much less about an epidemic. And yet, by the autumn of 1918, half a million soldiers—French, British and American—had been taken out of combat by the flu. The flu spread across the trenches into the camps of Germany and its allies.
Having remained neutral in the conflict, Spain was the only power to admit the wide existence of the epidemic in the spring and summer of 1918. That’s why the flu was at first called, the “Spanish flu,” a name that has stuck ever since, even though it is completely wrong.
To hide the reality of the spreading epidemic, the political leaders of the combatant powers violated every rule of hygiene known at the time. Schools, bars, restaurants, dance halls were left open—except when there were no longer enough people to run them. The “essential” enterprises providing material for the war were run by ever increasing numbers of sick workers, requisitioned by force to work.
People too sick to work in France were put on trains and sent to other parts of the country, thus spreading the virus more widely. The military bases, the military hospitals, the train stations, the factories, even the whorehouses set up by the armies for their troops, were the centers around which the epidemic clustered. Already in the Middle Ages, humanity knew it was necessary to isolate sick people. But isolating sick people would have required the various powers to admit that their troops were sick, and to devote some of the resources they had sequestered for the war to combat the flu. That, none of them were ready to do.
In other words, the needs of their war prevented the imperialist powers from employing any widespread measures that might have helped contain the spread of the flu. This was especially true in the autumn of 1918 when the war was drawing to its close, even as working people throughout the world were looking toward revolutionary Russia. The troops on both sides were fed up with the war.
The end of the war in November 1918 came at the end of the second wave of the epidemic. The celebrations that were organized to greet the announcement of the armistice were major sources for the rebounding of infection. The “victors”—Britain, France and the U.S.—would let nothing deprive them of their “victory” parades. There must be speeches and victory celebrations, flags unfurled, patriotism run amok.
In the U.S., the rapid spread of the flu among the civilian population, the so-called third wave, began with these patriotic, flag-waving extravaganzas, when tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands massed close together on city streets to greet the returning troops.
There had already been so-called “victory bond” parades in a number of American cities in September, which turned those cities into incubation spots for the virus. Philadelphia, with the biggest parade, was particularly hard hit. By contrast, cities like San Francisco and New York, which had already shut down schools and begun to prevent most public gatherings, as well as require the wearing of masks, were significantly more protected.
The situation of health in the countries at war, as well as in their colonies, had worsened considerably since the beginning of the war. On the one hand, the immense majority of nurses, doctors, pharmacists and surgeons had been sent into the battle zones. Hospitals had little medicine, not enough beds, and few means of disinfection. The sanitary situation in European cities was atrocious.
During these same war years, the civilian population had undergone a rapid fall in the standard of living. Workers in the factories were being driven harder and harder to get out more production for the war. In many areas of Europe where war raged, food was scarce. All of this meant that people were dying from other diseases, not only the flu itself.
The blockade imposed on Germany and Austria-Hungary by the U.S., Britain and France led to famine in the very center of Europe.
The U.S. was not as severely touched as those countries where people were living right in the midst of the war. But even here, poverty played its role in the extension of the flu. Working people crowded together in big-city housing were two or three times as likely as those in the wealthy areas to die of the flu.
The quacks who were selling snake oil profited greatly. And so did the major companies rapidly imposing their control over the marketing of medicines. Bayer turned itself into a giant company through its monopoly of the market for aspirin.
The pillage of raw materials and the severe exploitation of labor in the countries submitted to domination by the big imperialist powers rendered the consequences of the flu even more terrible for the peoples living there. The epidemic, which arrived through the ports, revealed the near absence of any medical personnel in these countries. There were hardly any hospitals. This was one of the consequences of the underdevelopment to which the domination of imperialism had plunged two-thirds of humanity.
Africa, under the colonial yoke, was forced to provide half a million men as cannon fodder for the European war and as hands to work in Europe’s factories. Africa suffered a rate of death from influenza at least twice as high as that of any European country. In Southern Rhodesia, under British domination, the rate of death was 9% for Europeans living in the country; 25% for Africans living in the “reserves,” and 92% among the African miners.
In the Philippines, under U.S. domination, U.S. troops who were infected were offloaded, disregarding the consequences for the population, without providing any medical supplies for them or the Philippine population.
India was the hardest hit of all the colonies, suffering at least 18 million deaths. The port of Bombay was first touched by the flu starting on the 29th of May 1919, when Indian troops, infected while serving in the British army, disembarked. Within two weeks, the city was devastated by the epidemic.
The colonial power refused to impose any quarantine on Indian ports, given the importance of Indian industry, particularly textiles, for the British economy. The colonial power paid no attention to sanitary conditions in the big cities, to which it had forced millions of peasants to move. Whatever doctors and nurses had existed before the war had been eaten up by the needs of the British war machine. India was left to battle the epidemic without any medical system.
Finally, it was the population itself that organized against the epidemic, pulled forward by militants who had begun to organize for independence. It was during this period that the Indian independence movement gained credit and extension.
Certainly, the limits of scientific knowledge in 1918 played a big role in the rate of mortality during the 1918–19 influenza. The viral origin of the flu was not yet known. And there was no vaccine that might have offered protection from it.
But capitalism owns a crushing responsibility for the extension and deadly balance sheet of the epidemic. The imperatives of the imperialist war for the profit of big capital catastrophically drove down the standard of living and destroyed the health of populations in the countries at war. People driven into the cities were lodged under totally unsanitary conditions. No country had a policy devoted to hygiene and public health. Workers in the colonized countries were kept in an appalling material and cultural oppression.
What happened in 1918–19 should have condemned bourgeois society, bringing it to its end. It was saved by the treason of the principle leaders of the Social Democracy in 1914, which left the workers in most countries without perspectives and without leadership, both of which had existed in Russia when the proletariat overthrew the domination of the bourgeoisie there in 1917.
There is no comparison between the situation in 1918–19 and the scientific knowledge that exists today. And the material means to confront the COVID-19 epidemic are immeasurably greater than humanity had in 1918. And yet, today, there is also chaos. The number of deaths, given what could be done, is unthinkable. Today, the virus is wedded with an economic collapse, one which the virus may have provoked, but whose roots lie deep in the capitalist system itself. To get rid of the rottenness of this worn-out system means it has to be overthrown. This still remains the only viable perspective for humanity.
As the revolutionary Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring in 1878: “Both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself, and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.”