In the path of death: how the Spanish influenza of 1918 came by sea and land, creating despair, desolation, and fear

17/06/2021

Spanish influenza made its appearance in the world a few months after the end of the First World War. This disease, incubated on the European battlefields due to the precarious living conditions resulting from a confrontation of this magnitude, spread across the planet with unusual speed. Germany, France, Italy, England, and Spain were the first countries to suffer serious devastation from the disease. The disease left European lands to move to America and the rest of the world.

In the Americas, the first place it touched was the United States, where the first cases were recorded in 1918. By October, the disease had spread throughout the country and was advancing towards the south of the continent. By the end of October, the plague reached Mexico and, as everywhere else it roamed, left a trail of death and desolation. Scholars have estimated that, when the pandemic ended its deadly journey around the world, between 21 and 50 million people died.

Spanish influenza in Mexico

It is important to point out that in Mexico there had already been some isolated cases of influenza during the month of April 1918. These occurred in two places that belonged to the army since the disease was detected in both the Zapadores barracks and the Presidential Staff School. To prevent a larger problem, the Superior Health Council took action. In the first instance, it ordered that the sick be separated from their companions and that the buildings housing the dormitories be disinfected to prevent a new outbreak.

While it is true that on that occasion the Council acted very quickly, the opposite happened when the epidemic broke out, as it was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. This is largely explained by the fact that the Council lacked the authority to regulate health matters at the national level. The provisions of the Sanitary Regulations of 1892 stated that the Superior Council of Health only had jurisdiction in the Federal District, in the federal territories, and in some of the ports and customs, so its area of influence was very limited.

Thus, it could only advise the state authorities in charge of preserving health, but it could not outline a global policy aimed at stopping the spread of an epidemic type of disease, without being accused of trying to assume powers that did not correspond to it and, above all, of trying to violate state sovereignty. For this reason, when influenza appeared in the border states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila, the Council only recommended the establishment of a sanitary cordon.

Numerous accounts of this deadly disease have survived, including both the press of the time and official reports, as well as songs, oral histories, votive offerings, and drawings.

This cordon was intended to halt the advance of the disease into the interior of the country for a time. At the same time, other provisions were issued, such as the closing of schools, temples, theaters, and any meeting place, in the hope that, by avoiding contact between large groups of people, the risk of contagion would be reduced. However, these measures did not succeed and influenza spread throughout the rest of the country. Newspaper reports highlighted that mortality was extremely high in different parts of the states of Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Querétaro, and Puebla.

Some newspapers emphasized that the disease was worsening because no measures had been taken to help put an end to the filthy conditions in which the population found themselves. To give greater force to the assertions made in the media, it was emphasized that the conditions of the markets were highly unsanitary, with unkempt floors, with a population that, due to lack of education, spat on the floor and with vendors who did not take care of the hygiene of the food they sold. Furthermore, the authorities were accused of not forcing the inhabitants to keep their sidewalks clean.

For the journalists, it was evident that the unhealthy living conditions had caused the disease to spread rapidly among the inhabitants. To this should be added other factors such as the fact that there was a large number of dead that could not be buried due to lack of space in the cemeteries. Worse still, there was a lack of medicines and trained doctors. In the midst of the grave situation that society was going through, the popular imagination was given free rein to give an account of what was happening and to leave a testimony of how the situation was perceived. Most of these testimonies had a jocular character since in the face of the irremediable nature of the disease, it was preferable to laugh rather than cry over death.

The rigorous situation in the country changed at the end of November 1918. At that time, the Superior Council of Health declared that the cases of influenza had diminished notably, so it was probable that the epidemic was on its way to disappear. This news served as an incentive for Mexico City to outline a fierce criticism against the Council and the authorities of the City Hall. In an ironic way, they were congratulated for their work to stop the disease. A task that consisted of doing nothing.

If the epidemic had receded, it was not due to the work of these organizations, but because there were no medicines to fight it. In the collective imagination, influenza had left a mark that would be difficult to erase and had also left strong resentments, as it was believed that those who were in charge of looking after the health of the population had not fulfilled their duties. In the face of the frustration caused by the losses, the only thing left to do was to look for those to blame for a tragedy that shocked Mexican society with great intensity.

By Professor Beatriz Lucía Cano Sánchez, Director of Historical Studies. This is a brief excerpt from a long-form research paper On the road to death: the Spanish influenza of 1918. Representations of the Spanish influenza epidemic in the Mexican imaginary. Source: INAH