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Economic Impact Spanish Flu Pandemic

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Nature of the Problem/Topic

Almost daily, we face the threat of acquiring the flu virus and of being down with the flu. Most of the time, it is a sickness which can be easily cured with rest, fluids, and over the counter medications. However, in 1918, the flu mutated into something which was far more virulent. 

It mutated into what would be known as the Spanish flu (Rosenberg, 2010). The first flu attack was seen in China; however, other reports also revealed that cases were initially seen in a small Kansas town, more particularly, Fort Riley (Rosenberg, 2010). The fort was an outpost in Kansas where they trained new soldiers before being shipped off to Europe for World War I. a company cook came down with flu symptoms which seemed similar to the symptoms of a bad cold. He was immediately isolated; however, some soldiers were also admitted to the infirmary over the next hour for the same symptoms as the cook (Rosenberg, 2010). Despite their best efforts to control the symptoms, the flu spread rapidly to the Fort Riley population, and after several weeks, about one thousand were infected with the flu; 46 of them died towards the end (Rosenberg, 2010). Similar events were documented soon in various US military camps, and this spread aboard transportation ships, and this disease unintentionally entered Europe through infected soldiers. The Spanish government quickly made the epidemic public when the virus entered Spain; and when most people first learned of the Spanish broadcast attack, the flu was called the Spanish flu (Rosenberg, 2010). It also affected Russia, India, China, and Africa later on; but by the end of 1918, the disease’s first wave slowly diminished. However, T, the second flu outbreak was more devastating. About the same time, it hit three port cities (Boston, US; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone) (Rosenberg, 2010). The second wave overwhelmed hospitals, as the patient population overflowed and their stocks exhausted. The flu has had a significant effect on patients, as signs of severe exhaustion, fever, and headache have already begun to surface within a few hours (Rosenberg, 2010). Patients often endured intense coughing bouts that most frequently ripped their abdominal muscles. Blood was often seen from eyes, nostrils and ears. Even other patients vomited out (Rosenberg, 2010). This disease often killed patients within a matter of hours of manifestation of the first symptom, and others within one day or two of the first attack.

Economic Impact Spanish Flu Pandemic

Scope of the Problem

The Spanish flu was a deadly strain and did not manifest the typical characteristic of the flu in the sense that it targeted those who were young and healthy, more particularly, the 20 to 35-40-year-olds (Rosenberg, 2010). This virus was fast in spreading all over the globe, and it managed to affect millions of people and to kill about 5 per cent of the global population. About 20% of the flu patients later developed pneumonia, and half of those afflicted with pneumonia died (Duncan, n.d). Many of the patients also choked to death due to pulmonary edema after their lungs became swamped with blood and mucus. 

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Other symptoms were also seen by other doctors, including kidney complications, “silent lungs,” swollen ankles, and blood in their urine (Duncan, n.d). The impact of the disease in the world, even in areas not affected by it, was still significant. People became very much worried about the disease affecting them. 

People in the cities were ordered to wear masks; spitting and coughing in public was prohibited; and schools and theatres were closed (Duncan, n.d). Many people tried homemade remedies for it, including raw onions, pocketing potatoes, or wearing a bag of camphor around their neck (Duncan, n.d). 

The second wave quickly filled the morgues, and not enough coffins were available for the piles of dead bodies that mass graves were often dug to rid of the rotting corpses (Duncan, n.d). 

The third wave was seen in November of 1918 when the end of the First World War brought about thousands of soldiers coming home to their families and their communities – hugging, kissing, and parading in the streets. These soldiers passed on another wave of the flu (Duncan, n.d). This was not as deadly as the second wave, and it did not receive as much attention as the first two waves of the disease. 

Eventually, this third wave of the disease disappeared in 1919 and through 1920 (Duncan, n.d). This disease ended up killing more people than the First World War – about 20 to 40 million people and is considered to be the most deadly infection experienced in human history. About 675,000 Americans died from this disease, and the rest were casualties in Europe and Africa (Billings, 2005).  

The impact of this disease was so severe that in the US, the average life span was decreased by ten years. It had a death rate of 2.5% compared to the other flu epidemics, and the death rates for pneumonia for 15-34-year-olds manifested at 20 times higher rate in 1918 as compared to previous years (Billings, 2005). 

Human carriers mostly spread this disease through trading and shipping lines. Most of the outbreaks were seen in North America, Europe, Asia, Brazil, Africa, and the South Pacific region (Billings, 2005). The death rates in India were very high, with patients dying at a rate of 50 deaths per 1000 people. It is also important to note that the disease had a significant impact on the health workers who were often the first to succumb to the flu due to their proximity to the patients (Duncan, n.d). More volunteers were often called in to assist the health workers despite the risks to their lives.  

Economic Impact

The death toll of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu also impacted on the economy of various countries. The fact that it claimed young adults also caused significant issues with the working population (Brainerd & Siegler, 2002). Analysts also point out that the considerable death tolls and the decrease in the workforce contributed to the post-WWI economic recession. Authors also cite the fact that US states with high influenza mortality rates also manifested higher rates in business failures in the years following 1919 (Brainerd & Siegler, 2002). Some analysts claim that the impact of the disease to the USUS and other countries was not that significant; however, other critics are quick to point out that this disease at least had a moderate impact on the economy of most countries affected (IMF, 2006). In other countries affected by the disease, like India, agricultural production fell by 3.3%, and their agrarian workforce declined by 8% (IMF, 2006).

Analysts like Garrett (2007) reviewing the economic impact of the influenza virus, reveal that the short-term economic effects of the flu were indeed very much detrimental to the countries affected, especially the USUS. Various businesses, mostly those in the service and entertainment areas suffered significant losses in profits because many people avoided public places, including hotels, restaurants, movie theatres, and similar establishments (Garrett, 2007). Businesses involved in health care products naturally enjoyed a significant increase in profit. 

The pandemic caused a shortage of labour – eventually leading to demand higher wages among employees hired (Garrett, 2007). Based on other studies, the influenza epidemic also caused the death of potential human capital for years to come – from in utero deaths and from possible viable females giving birth. Some analysts claim that the impact of these losses may not have been felt immediately, but most likely impacted on human capital availability in the years following the flu epidemic (Garrett, 2007).

Political Considerations

When the 1918 Spanish flu broke out, notices about the disease and its spread slowly gained notice in some of the local papers across Europe and the US, however, government authorities did not pay much attention to the messages (da Costa Goulart, 2005). Only when the Spanish government finally publicized the presence of the disease was the European and American government prompted to acknowledge the presence of the disease. While the First World War was being waged all over Europe, military censorship was also in place, and the governments often censored their news on the epidemic because none of them refused to publicize the fact that their armies may be weaker due to numbers being depleted by the disease (da Costa Goulart, 2005). Spain was a neutral country during the First World War, and this made it easier for them to publicize information on the disease.

When the condition was finally acknowledged, affected countries suddenly imposed stricter restrictions on public assembly and personal interactions. Newspapers were even censored, towns were quarantined, and some pets were even slaughtered (Tuccille, 2009). The pandemic during 1918 revealed that liberal challenges to public health efforts could create political tension and cause delays in the delivery of health services (Tuccille, 2009). Moreover, authoritative response to individual liberties helped to impose order in the society. The Spanish flu revealed that “asking whether the government should have liberty-limiting powers is the wrong question, the right question is, what powers should the state have to deal with each level of risk” (Tuccille, 2009). 

During the Spanish flu pandemic, many governments were fearful of the effects of the disease, and it triggered their restrictive actions (quarantines, armed guards, restrictions on liberties, and other restrictive measures) on the people which caused the latter to be more frightened and be less free. 

Impacted Populations

The flu moved to different countries in different ways. In Switzerland, it affected more than 50% of their community. It was higher among those in the 20-49 age range and among males (Ammon, 2008). For the younger adults and the adolescents, mortality rates were associated with those who were overworked, who did not have health care, and who lived in crowded institutions like the military camps and similar areas (Ammon, 2008).The Spanish flu also ended up killing 8 million people in Spain (Jewell, 2010). About three-quarters of the European population was said to have been mortally affected by the flu from 1918-1919. This disease covered 14 European countries all in all and the most massive death toll in Europe was seen in Italy, followed by Bulgaria, and then by Portugal (Jewell, 2010). The death toll in the Netherlands was registered at 84 per cent, in Sweden at 74% and in Germany at 73%. The lowest death rates were seen in Finland (33%), followed by England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, France, and Switzerland (Jewell, 2010).

The flu also was spread from pole to pole and registered as a pandemic when it flowed from other countries like China, India, New Zealand, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Panama, Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands (Jewell, 2010). Experts also emphasize that the Spanish flu was very much distinct in the sense that it impacted more on the more substantial population of young, healthy adults – not on the more vulnerable population of children and elderly adults. Researchers claim that this may have been a result of the body overreacting to the virus. This is a phenomenon known as the “cytokine storm,” where healthy adults with sound immune systems manifested strong reactions to the virus as compared to others who would have been generally affected by the flu (Matton, 2009).  

Summary and Conclusion

The above discussion reveals that the Spanish flu was one of the most devastating diseases which afflicted the general population. It was first seen in a military camp in Kansas and quickly spread through other military bases. American soldiers deployed to Europe during the First World War later transmitted this disease to Europe. When it reached Spain, this was the only time when it was publicly acknowledged as an epidemic. Its impact on the global population went as far as Africa and the Pacific Islands. 

It was a disease that initially manifested with the usual symptoms of flu – fever, headache, body aches, colds, cough – but its effects on those afflicted with the disease were far from typical or expected. It could kill a person within hours or a day or two from the first infection. It caused pneumonia and pulmonary edema, which, in turn, caused the patient respiratory and breathing functions and later caused the patient’s death. For some reason, this disease also caused organ failure for some people – again, eventually leading to their death. With various symptoms eventually causing the death of those afflicted, it registered mortality rates in the millions. 

Strangely enough, it was also a disease which did not commonly affect the vulnerable population of children and elderly adults; instead, it affected mostly the healthy adult population. Its economic impact has generally been negative for most of the affected nations, and some sectors of the economy. Some authors and analysts claim that it contributed to the economic recession in the Post World War I period. 

This disease also revealed how political issues affected the handling of the condition and the extent to which these countries have gone through to control the spread and to influence the management of the flu.  

Future Directions

The Spanish flu was able to reveal the flaws in the political management of the disease. The disease was not publicized until it affected a country which was neutral to the ongoing war – Spain. Before then, the US and affected European nations did not want to acknowledge the presence of an epidemic for fear that the disease would show their vulnerability to their enemy. In the current age which saw the emergence of various infectious diseases (H1N1, SARS, meningococcemia, Avian flu) which showed the potential of also decimating the human population, these political issues must not be allowed to dictate health protocols and precautions which can eventually save lives.

In the current age of globalization, information technology can be used to inform as many people as possible about the presence of an epidemic and about what they can do to prevent its spread and to avoid contracting it. The information network and dissemination can now be made within a matter of minutes and spread to as many people as possible through the internet with the assistance of social networking sites and news websites. Information about the disease, its symptoms, its causes, its preventive tools, and its management can also be disseminated to as many people as possible through the internet.

For countries which do not have the proper economic tools to fight off this disease, they should be given priority in terms of health assistance. Without any service, the risk of incurring high mortality numbers is considerable. These poorer and less equipped nations might also spread the infection to other countries if inadequate control and management precautions are taken or implemented. In the past management of the H1N1 virus, the World Health Organization, the CDC, and the different governments of different countries around the globe were able to work together to control and manage the effects of the disease. 

Although mortality rates were still registered, and the level of threat for the disease was also considerable, the disease was effectively managed and controlled. The technology and general health advancements acquired since the First World War also helped in maintaining and managing the effects of H1N1. 

With even better precautions, it is possible to prevent a second wave of the H1N1 or prevent other emerging diseases from reaching epidemic or pandemic status. In the end, preventive measures are the best precautions we can all take to avoid this disease.


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