NOPE, that’s not the latest fake news being spread by that broadcast journalist who’s gullible, hysterical, incompetent or a paid Yellow agitator (or all of the above.) Neither is it the prophetic vision of some religious nut.
That’s how many Filipinos died as a result of the misnamed “Spanish flu” that ravaged the world in 1918-1919 and killed at least 50 million and afflicted 500 million souls. It took the lives of 80,000 Filipinos and infected 4 million. That makes the current Covid-19 pandemic — so far — look like a minor cold. The other day it infected “just” 1.8 million people (4,428 Filipinos) and killed 108,834 (247 here.)
I find it astonishing that a pandemic of such colossal magnitude hasn’t been etched in our collective consciousness. I consider myself well-read, but it is only in researching material on the current pandemic for this column that I became aware of the horrific scale of that tragedy which afflicted humanity just in the last century.
One explanation is that the drama — if I may use that word — of the Great War (the First World War), its clash of empires, the emergence of terrible new weapons of war such as mustard gas and tanks, and the heroism of soldiers eclipsed the “mundane” deaths of millions of ordinary human beings, each dying only with a whimper.
Another explanation is that the pandemic was so horrific, that as in the case of individual consciousness, our global mind consciousness coped with it by blocking it from memory.
Indeed, one puzzle has been the fact that literary writers of that period — supposedly the people’s voices, hypersensitive to the human condition — were for some reason silent on the horror of the Spanish flu, even if many such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John dos Passos were witnesses to it. One writer though speculated that the hell of the Spanish flu actually silently wormed its way into the minds of writers and especially philosophers to create a genre of works of cynicism and ennui just before World War 2.
How else could T.S. Eliot — considered the single most important and unparalleled poet of the modern era — have thought of these chilling lines, “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” Was the bang World War 1, the whimper the last breath of a flu-infected man?
Probably an example of deliberate collective amnesia is the following. A huge number of Filipinos (and Catholics for that matter) are devotees of the “Lady of Fatima,” the Virgin Mary. She supposedly beamed down, so to speak, and appeared in 1917 to three Portuguese children, revealed to them “three secrets” and asked them to lead the world in popularizing Her veneration and the Rosary — and to call on Catholics to fight communism.
Few devotees know that two of the children, the siblings Francis and Jacinta Marto, had been afflicted with the Spanish flu*, which took their lives in 1920 and 1919, respectively. That raises the intriguing question: Were their visions of the Virgin Mary merely hallucinations because of flu-inflicted high fever? Were people of that time so horrified of the pandemic that they hallucinated that God’s Mother no less came to earth to save them?
The more uncomfortable question, as the pandemic was being touted at that time as God’s punishment on an evil world: why would God take the lives of innocent children who were His mother’s messengers?
In our case, the United States colonizers deliberately toned down the extent of the pandemic, as a well-researched book* pointed out:
“The Philippines were not protected by their island status. When flu broke out there, it didn’t occur to the occupying Americans that it might have come from outside, even though the first casualties were longshoremen toiling in the ports of Manila. They assumed its origins were indigenous — they called it by the local name for flu, trancazo —and made no attempt to protect the local population, which numbered 10 million. The only exception was the camp on the outskirts of Manila where Filipinos were being trained to join the US war effort, around which they created a quarantine zone. In some remote parts of the archipelago, 95 percent of communities fell ill during the epidemic, and 80,000 Filipinos died.”*
A study by a Filipino scholar** similarly pointed out:
“Colonial public health officials… announced that, compared with the first wave of the epidemic that peaked in June (1918), the second wave supposedly less severe and that the expected fatalities would come from the very young and the aged. This official announcement is interesting not only for its dismissive tone and lack of seriousness, but also for the high level of misinformation made by health authorities in informing the public about the nature of the pandemic and possible impact of its spread among the local population. Later field reports in the Philippines and elsewhere would prove that the second wave of the pandemic was more virulent than the first, and that the young adult population would be the age group hardest hit by the disease.” **
It is media therefore that blocked from our collective consciousness this tragedy that took the lives of 80,000 Filipinos and over 50 million all over the globe.
It was media that actually dubbed the disease the “Spanish flu,” although it didn’t come from Spain. There are three rival theses on where it originated: in a US military camp whose soldiers spread it to Europe when they were deployed to fight there in World War 1; in the squalid battle trenches of France; or brought into Europe by “cheap” Chinese laborers nearly forcibly brought there for the war effort.
The nations engaged in the war effort ordered their media to tone down and even suppress news about the pandemic, as it might weaken the morale of their soldiers, who would naturally be worried over their relatives back home.
Spain didn’t censor its media though, since it was neutral in World War 1. Consequently, its press as well as foreign correspondents published sensational, gory reports about the spread of the disease that the world got to call it the “Spanish flu.” (That media phenomenon continues today, when the US and Western media have been freely roaming Manila’s streets to send gory photos of drug addicts supposedly killed by the police… They can’t do that for instance even in Mexico.)
In our case now, it is the opposite media phenomenon. While from all indications, the pandemic has not spread to alarming proportions, as it has in the US, Italy and Spain, supposed journalists like that wide-eyed broadcaster have been trying to paint a grim, false picture of the situation.
What the hell.
*Spinney, Laura. Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (p. 303). Public Affairs. Kindle Edition.
** F. Gealogo, ‘The Philippines in the world of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919,’ Philippine Studies, June 2009; 57(2): 261–92.