[December 23, 2018] The world today is recognizing the end of World War I; brought to an end by an armistice on November 11, 1918. Often overlooked was a killer far deadlier than the war. The 1918 Flu Pandemic killed an estimated 50-100 million people. But was it a failure in leadership that caused it to spread?
The question is ignored; not because it’s neither relevant nor unimportant. The question of whether the influence (flu) pandemic occurred because of a failure in leadership simply remains unasked because the war overshadowed it. The war, on the other hand, was a major contributing factor to the spread of the flu.
The 1918 flu occurred because of the close quarters and massive troop movements helped fuel the spread of the disease. In the U.S., unusual flu activity was first detected in military camps and some cities during the Spring of 1918. Communications about the severity and spread of the flu were kept quiet as officials were concerned about keeping up public morale and not giving away information about illness among soldiers during wartime.1
In 1918, scientists had not yet discovered viruses, so there were no tests to diagnose, detect, or identify the flu. Prevention and treatment methods were limited. For example, unlike today, there were no vaccines to protect against infection, no antiviral drugs to treat, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.
To prevent the spread of the flu, efforts to limit the spread of the disease were limited to a variety of measures that helped. This included the promotion of good hygiene, isolation and quarantine of the sick, use of disinfectants, and closures of public settings. Leadership, mostly at the local level, was a major factor in keeping the number of deaths down in the U.S. and in other industrial nations.
While many will argue that the cause of World War I is the failure of much of Europe’s political leadership, we can unequivocally say that the 1918 Flu Pandemic was not a leadership failure. The war was certainly a factor in the spread of the flu but not of its cause. If it were not for the many political and societal leaders, the destruction of the 1918 flu pandemic would have been much worse.