Whether dampening reporting during the war, or running adverts for miracle cures, newspapers from the 1918 flu have a lot to teach us about how information moves in an epidemicby Dr Harry Bennett / March 19, 2020 / Leave a comment
The Spanish Flu pandemic—that would perhaps kill as many as 50 million people worldwide during its course—entered the consciousness of the British public relatively slowly. Without global organisations to draw attention to the outbreak, and online connections to allow the rapid transit of information around the globe, news travelled much more slowly when the ‘flu emerged in 1917.
During the early phase of the pandemic, the nature of the virus also had a role to play. The symptoms, which included bleeding from the mucus membranes—the nose, lungs, intestines etc—could sometimes result in misdiagnosis as doctors put the affliction down to other causes like dengue fever.
But there was also another reason for the slow growth of awareness: censorship.
In the midst of the brutal slaughter of the First World War, censorship was an established fact of life. For many newspapers self-censorship out of a patriotic duty to maintain morale had begun in 1914, as the death tolls on the Western Front had mounted. Increasingly, this was backed by government censors, working under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act passed in August 1914.
They signalled via closed conferences with the press that military information—and information that might be injurious to public morale—was not to become headline news. Other combatant nations across Europe had their own systems to control the news flow. By 1918, newspaper editors were used to not printing bad news—the process had become automatic. That March, as Germany began a devastating Spring offensive on the Western Front, there were very pressing reasons not to mention the silent killer stalking the streets.
Even so, by May 1918 the great pandemic was becoming headline news in Spain, where the press reported on a growing public health crisis. As a non-combatant nation, Spanish journalists were not fettered in the way their overseas equivalents were—and the European press was able to report on a crisis in Spain. By this means, the pandemic became known as “Spanish Flu”—even though its point of origin and pattern of spread was impossible to identify at the time, and indeed has not been possible to reconstruct in subsequent studies.
During the summer of 1918, following the defeat of the German Spring offensives which brought a lessening of military worries in London and Paris, the flu pandemic…