“The undertakers couldn't make the coffins quick enough, let alone polish them... The bodies changed colour so quickly after death they had to be screwed down to await burial. The gravediggers worked from dawn to dusk seven days a week to cope. The smell of those deaths was indescribable.” - This is an extract from one of thousands of letters stored at the Imperial War Museum describing the horrors of the Spanish flu.
The Spanish flu was one of the most severe pandemics in human history, lasting from spring 1919 to the summer of 1919. It infected a third of the global population and killed an estimated 17-50 million people, unleashing itself upon an already war damaged world. Unlike most influenza types, the Spanish flu disproportionately affected young adults with a large proportion of deaths in the 20-40 age range.
Unlike the name suggests, the virus did not originate in Spain. It was a neutral country during WW1 and it did not suppress its media unlike the allied nations who wanted to keep spirits high, only focussing on war news. As a result, most of the reports of the virus appeared to be in Spain. There is insufficient data to pinpoint the actual origins of the virus.
Evidence suggests that the virus was no more deadly than previous strains of influenza. Instead, malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene, all exacerbated by the recent war, promoted bacterial superinfection. This superinfection killed most of the victims, typically after a somewhat prolonged death bed.
The Spanish flu broke out in a world which had just come out of a global war, with vital public resources diverted to military efforts. The idea of a public health system was in its infancy – in many places, only the middle class or the rich could afford to visit a doctor. The flu killed many in slums and other poor urban areas, among populations with poor nutrition and sanitation, and often those with underlying health conditions.
The flu spurred the development of public health systems across the developed world, as scientists and governments realised pandemics would spread more quickly than they had in the past. The legacy of Spanish flu remains evident today as we face coronavirus with the benefit of the NHS by our side.