The pandemic of COVID-19 that first appeared in China in late 2019 has been frequently compared by politicians, the news media, and other observers with the pandemic of influenza known as the “Spanish” flu that appeared a century earlier. One of the deadliest epidemic events since the “Black Death” of the 13th-15th centuries, the “Spanish” flu infected over half a billion people worldwide just as the First World War came to an end.
In this talk, I’ll describe how responses to COVID-19 have caused us to take another look at the “Spanish” flu pandemic, especially from a social historical perspective. From the tug-of-war between public health officials and politicians and the blame/name game (why is “Spanish” in quotation marks, anyway?); mass protests over masks (and other things); and questions about the politics and poetics of commemorating the victims, our re-investigation of the “Spanish” flu pandemic in the shadow of COVID-19 has suggested some intriguing answers to long standing questions about the historical pandemic–and raised other intriguing questions about reactions to the current one.
Christopher S Rose (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) teaches world history at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas; he has also taught courses in global studies, history, and Middle Eastern Studies at St Edward’s University and the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the social history of health and disease in early 20th century Egypt; his most recent article in the Journal of World History discusses the implications the ‘Spanish’ flu outbreak for Egyptian history. An active public historian, he was a founding co-host of the podcast 15 Minute History and is currently a co-host of New Books in Middle Eastern Studies.