The notorious flu epidemic of 1918 – known as the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic – was first reported among US troops bound for the First World War trenches. Given the enormous mobility of troops at the time, the disease was largely free to spread to fresh population centres and so it claimed the lives of 50 million people worldwide. Spreading like wildfire. A powerful example of the destructive power of a pandemic.
In the kingdom of Spain, the disease arrived sometime between April and May 1918. We know that, as there was no press censorship in the country, the Spanish press reported the epidemic within days of its arrival. Which explains why it was initially thought of as having come from Spain and spread to the rest of Europe, when the opposite was true. And to complete the contextualization of the disease, there was a further surge in September and October 1918, when the mortality rate was at its highest. After that, there was another upsurge in February 1919, lasting a further two months. Finally, in 1920, there was a second wave of the epidemic. In all, around 150,000 lives were lost in Spain and 1918 was the only year (prior to the Civil War) when there was a fall in the overall population figures.
The fact is, though, that the epidemic struck a Spain that was barely surviving poverty levels. The contemporary press highlighted the good work of the authorities in, say, organizing clean-up squads or shutting down the schools. But to be realistic, most of the children scarcely set foot in a school, as they had to work from a very early age. The labour organizations were unable to concern themselves with the disease and used to chalk it up to the dire hygienic conditions in which the working class lived. Thus the Catalan unions affiliated to the CNT went ahead with the Sants Congress in the summer of 1918 (by which time the first wave of the epidemic had begun to ease) and the Asturian miners held their congress in September, whilst the UGT held its national congress in Madrid in October (in mid-surge).
Bear in mind that the virus went unidentified until 1935 and that the working class of the time was already familiar with the impact of cholera, TB, diarrhoea and fever, typhus, polio and measles. Each epidemic claimed lives by the thousands and the poorest strata of society were especially hard hit. Poverty and lack of hygiene usually go hand in hand and this partly accounts for the high mortality rate. Added to which there was also the hunger that struck in times of crisis and 1918 was assuredly one of those. Europe was living through the final convulsions of the Great War and the factories were shutting down. Which merely exacerbated the circumstances of families staring at an uncertain future. The ongoing death-rates triggered religious processions and public prayers “for our sins” – the sort of thing that had happened in earlier epidemics.
But it should also be remembered that this came at a time of very high political and social conflict, the ending of the war in Europe. The pandemic claimed millions of lives in Europe, providing the backdrop to the revolutions of 1918-19. It would not at all be going too far to state that the flu was one factor in the rash of strikes that erupted in Catalonia in 1919, ushered in by the famous La Canadiense strike in February of that year.
Solidaridad Obrera – in October – carried daily reports of the epidemic. There was talk of people dying day in and day out on the streets of Barcelona and in other cities around Spain. There were reports of doctors dying and of sanatoriums being relocated from places not overly stricken by the disease to needier areas. And of protests against towns and cities being left to fend for themselves, health-wise. Which was a stark contrast with what the authorities claimed that they were doing. Obviously, their efforts were not up to the mark. The people insisted that unhealthy premises or food-stores from which there was a stench flowing be shut down – remember that nobody knew for sure where the flu was coming from. Solidaridad Obrera took it upon itself to reply to one report that half-rotten bananas were being sold outside its own offices. Another consideration was the murky waters flooding the cities in the wake of rain showers, or the wholly unhygienic urban streams of the industrial era.
Furthermore, there was the collapse of hospital and funeral services. In respect of the latter, there was a strike in Barcelona triggered by the dismissal of 21 workers for taking exception to the very dire conditions they were having to cope with while making coffins. The Woodworkers’ Union espoused that strike and called the entire sector out on strike in October 1918. Victory was secured within days. The cabinet-makers of Valencia did likewise. In the case of Barcelona, the death from flu of Josep Escofet on 15 October was reported; he was a leading militant of the Woodworkers’ Union. And there were strikes in other sectors too (the coppersmiths, tram-workers, Casa Girona employees, carriage-makers in Barcelona; the glass-workers in Gijón, the miners in Asturias, Andalusian farm-workers, company employees in Terrassa, Mataró, Sabadell, Sitges, etc.). This at a time when there was no self-isolation. Barcelona even had to contend with a rent strike backed by the Tenants’ Union (based at 83, Calle San Pablo, premises shared with the pasta-makers), after hikes in rents for apartments and rooms. The demands were similar: in addition to soaring prices there were complaints about the absence of toilets and running water.
When these demands were publicly delivered to the landlords, the latter merely laughed at them, whilst the City Corporation just shrugged its shoulders. The suggestions coming from the workers’ organizations were entirely reasonable. The need to report for work was not being queried. This was at a time when the rule was “no work, no pay”. There was a request for a reduction in work hours so that they might have enough strength left to contend with the epidemic, since it was correctly believed that exhausted bodies were weak and made easy pickings for the disease. There was also a request that washing facilities be installed in workshops for hand-washing purposes. Another demand was that canteens be set up in the factories so that they might have something hot to eat. The usual practice was to have cold snacks eaten while sitting on the floor. There was even talk of improving ventilation in the workplaces; usually there was a hanging cloud of thick dust, floating textile fragments or smoke affecting their breathing.
In Valencia, the Naturist Vegetarian Society offered its services to the governor to assist flu-sufferers. The offer was rejected by the Board of Health on moral grounds. By which we mean so-called Christian morality, of course. The hygienist, naturist or vegetarian movement was gradually expanding, partly on account of this epidemic, with a finger of blame pointed directly at the State over its failure to look out for public health. The general population was also accused of ignorance for not knowing how to combat the disease properly. The view was that a vegetarian diet was the cure.
In short, by 1918, the epidemic was yet another factor to be considered in a world turned upside down. In contrast to our current pandemic, where the Coronavirus has come out of the blue, the flu of 1918 was but one of many incidents that struck out of the blue. The ending of the World War triggered a deep-seated economic crisis and the world was stalked by the spectre of revolution. We cannot say for sure what impact the flu had on the revolutions of the day. All we do know is that it had an impact in Brazil, becoming the overture to an insurrection (the bourgeois withdrew to their luxurious villas, leaving the workers to perish in their thousands). We do know that in the wake of an epidemic, life has an added value and this underpins fresh social struggles that might previously have been unthinkable. We shall see what the current epidemic holds in store for us.
[Additional from KSL:] From Solidaridad Obrera, 15 October 1918. Manuel Buenacasa reports the death of Jose(p) Escofet from the ‘flu.
“The flu, the ‘harmless illness’ that the authorities speak of, took but a few hours to carry off our friend who was treacherously attacked more than once at point blank range by the enemies of worker organization, but who failed to finish him off. He has perished, still full of enthusiasm and youth, aged just twenty-six. News of his demise will be cause of rejoicing for many. We are genuinely pained by the passing of this kindly, decent and hard-working fellow who contributed his enthusiasm, his liberty and his life to the revolutionary workers’ organization and the idea of human redemption.”
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.