There was a pandemic conspiracy, but it happened 100 years ago and was not what you might expect

Back in 1918, it wasn’t a small group of conspiracy theorists denying there was pandemic. Almost everyone in Britain refused to acknowledge one of the worst outbreaks of influenza the world has ever seen. This collective silence makes uncovering the truth a huge challenge.

When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, I don’t think my reactions were particularly unusual. An air of barely suppressed hysteria seemed everywhere as I quarantined my mail, washed my groceries and doom-scrolled various news websites. Footage of empty city centres, from Paris to New York, united the world in social disintegration.

Stuck in lockdown, my mind buzzed. I wondered what it had been like in 1918 without modern technology to hold them together. I’d read about medical care for the so-called Spanish Flu, yet had no real understanding about the social impact on communities and people’s daily lives. Our modern 24 hour news cycle documents major moments down to the minute, but obviously this did not exist in 1918. When I looked through the British Newspaper Archive to discover what was reported, I couldn’t quite believe what I saw.

During the war, reporting restrictions prevented news about the deadly flu spreading, yet going into the 1919 archives there was still remarkably little coverage. The most sensational story to hit London during that period was about Bovril shortages, which lasted several months. Citizens were asked not to stockpile (the one thing that did sound familiar!) so that those suffering from influenza could have what supplies there were. Even in the radical press, like the Women’s Dreadnought, there was barely a mention. All I found were a couple of articles about Russia’s public health response, as if it was a disease happening elsewhere.

The London Met Archives didn’t bring up much more. There was barely a mention in the minutes from the Metropolitan Asylum Board; a couple of short paragraphs in November 1918, but even that referred to an influenza epidemic rather than pandemic. The London County Council’s Education Committee minutes weren’t much more use. The only reference was in July 1919, where they noted a huge decline in numbers of children registered at school. The reasons, they claimed, were many. While they did mention an increase in infant and child mortality, influenza was given equal billing to measles.

I was starting to doubt the pandemic had happened, so sparse was the evidence. It wasn’t until I found the Influenza Report by the County Medical Officer of Health (June 1919) that it was reaffirmed. Indeed there had been a pandemic, and it had been colossal.

Due to problems in data capture, it is not known exactly how many people died worldwide in the 1918-19 pandemic, but is estimated to be at least 50 million. That’s 10 million more than died in four years of conflict during WW1. In London, at least 16,500 people died in the three waves between 1918 and 1919. This is likely to be an underestimate, with some claiming the figures are closer to 23,000. Most striking is that in 1918, influenza contributed to 25% of all deaths in the capital, almost all happening in the final quarter. That’s a lot of people all dying very suddenly in a short space of time. Why no news coverage?

Meanwhile in schools, attendance across London dropped to around 70%. In the worst hit areas, which tended to be poorer districts like the East End, numbers fell to around 30%. Yet despite some debate, London mostly kept their schools open. I am still researching what happened in East London, but based on the education committee reports, there was definitely no mass closures like we have seen. Considering how hard the 1918 pandemic hit children, that seems extraordinary to a modern eye.

So why did this conspiracy of silence occur? I am still collecting my thoughts, but other historians have their theories. As previously mentioned, the war imposed reporting restrictions on the media, as the government stressed the need to maintain morale in the interests of national security. I have also found evidence in the archives that medical experts encouraged people to ignore what was going on. Fear of the disease, the professionals claimed, would make you more open to infection. Others, like Catharine Arnold, have suggested a form of collective trauma, which created a mass forgetting. War had imposed so much loss and grief on families, they simply couldn’t take any more.

My original research question was about the social history of the pandemic, and women’s role within that. With so little to work with, uncovering any stories is hugely difficult. Yet there does seem to be evidence of the significant role women played in countries further from the main theatres of war. In Canada, women’s organisations recruited volunteers who prepared and delivered food; in the US, those who could drive went to some of the worst slums, carrying men weighing 100kg out of buildings and into ambulances, also driven by women; and in Australia, mothers and wives turned their homes into soup kitchens. Most worked with little training, and took great personal risk, entering the houses of highly contagious people. Some would die as a result.

In the UK, many of these services were being provided prior to 1918. The East London Federation of Suffragettes set up a cost price canteen almost as soon as the war began in 1914; and for many years women had been proving themselves invaluable in the workplace, filling traditional male roles, including driving ambulances. In many cases, these roles would continue well into 1919, although it is difficult to identify whether this was because of the pandemic or the slow demobilisation process. Either way, it seems reasonable to argue that in the 1918 pandemic, women played a vital role within local communities, in addition to the valiant efforts of the nurses inside hospitals.

In 2020, they would once again take on the dirty, dangerous and unglamorous tasks to keep society running. I’m tempted to say we do it because we are used to roles with no glory; but perhaps we also know how important those unimportant roles are. Despite the economic inequalities, the pandemic proved that we will always need childminders more than hedge-fund managers

So this International Women’s Day I tip my cap to all those women who stepped up in 2020 to sew scrubs; run food banks and organise mutual aid services. But mostly I want to salute the invisible women from 1918 to 1919, who gave so much, but whose sacrifices were never properly documented.