You may have heard of the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic of 1919.  Well I thought I knew a little about it, and therefore thought I knew more than a lot of people.  I have recently discovered, however, that what little I thought I knew was largely wrong!  While in the process of correcting my misconceptions, I reflected on a number of questions the story raised in my mind, and drew some lessons to apply in business and everyday life.

What’s Its Name?

The first thing I had to correct was the name: it was not Spanish, and it did not begin in 1919.  It began in January 1918, or possibly a little earlier, and continued until December 1920.  Experts disagree as to the place where it originated.  Candidates include China, America and Canada.  Spain is not one of them, but was the most publicised country to be affected, partly because The story was given particular prominence in the Spanish press because one of the disease’s victims, who eventually recovered, was the King, and being neutral in the Great War, it was one of the few countries not subject to severe press censorship.

Keep It Quiet!

In other countries reporting the extent and seriousness of the ‘flu pandemic was “discouraged” because the authorities feared that it would be a further blow to morale, but they permitted the publication of this and other stories about events in neutral countries. The British press did not exactly cover up the seriousness of the pandemic at home, but they did not give it much prominence, nor whip up panic, with doom-filled predictions, in the way much less serious epidemics have been reported in recent years.

What Has The War Got To Do With It?

There is considerable disagreement as to the relationship between the pandemic and the War.  It is clear that the War did not directly cause the disease, but it may have contributed to its spread.  The number of people moving long distances may have helped the disease to travel.  The weakening effects of living in such harsh conditions may have made soldiers and civilians more susceptible to the disease.

On the other hand, there is evidence that this particular form of ‘flu was more deadly for healthy young people than for older or younger ones.  Death seems to have been caused by an over-reaction of the body’s immune system.  So the weakening effects of the wartime economy may not have played much part in it.  It is also likely that soldiers received better medical treatment than most civilians, in the days before the NHS.  It is also important to note that the disease affected many parts of the World not involved in the War, such as Indonesia, Africa, and South America.

This is a warning against making easy assumptions about cause and effect in any situation.  It is especially important in making good decisions in management, including managing risks.  We need to go beyond the “facts” and ask “Why?” before coming to any conclusions.

How Bad Was It?

The numbers are almost unbelievable, whether you take the highest or lowest estimates.  In three years 500 million people were infected, about a third of the world’s population at the time, of whom somewhere between 50 million and 100 million died, or about 4 percent of the world’s population, and a particularly high proportion of those infected, 20%.  It was probably worse than the Black Death.  In Britain “only” about 250,000 died.  In the U.S.A. the pandemic affected about two or three million people of whom from 500,000 to 700,000 died.

The numbers of servicemen killed on both sides in the First World War are probably around nine or ten million and probably a similar number of civilians died as a result of the war, from various causes, including starvation and various diseases, apart from the ‘flu.  In Britain the numbers are around 700,000 to 900,000 servicemen, and probably another 100,000 civilians.  It is therefore perhaps understandable that in Britain the War is remembered far more than the ‘flu pandemic.  On a worldwide scale, however, it can be seen that the pandemic was a far greater catastrophe than the War.  In the U.S.A. the War accounted for the deaths of around 100,000 servicemen and a similar number of civilians: a much smaller number than those who died of the ‘flu.  Yet it is the War that has had the attention of historians, politicians, artists, poets, and writers of all kinds, in most countries.  I have never heard a poem about the ‘flu.

Now of course, it was, and is, right to ask “Why”.   It is also worthwhile to try to learn lessons, to hope to prevent another War, to see if the numbers of casualties could have been fewer, to think of better ways of treating the physical and mental wounds incurred by so many.  We should of course remember those who gave their lives in that conflict.  Let us never forget.

Were there not lessons to be learned from the ‘flu pandemic too?  Could we have stopped it before it reached such huge proportions?  Could our response have been better managed, to reduce the number of deaths and to mitigate its effect on the economy?   You may reply that the medical profession did study the pandemic and produce reports and theses on the issues raised, and that eventually, governments did respond.  I would say that the political and social response was at least as inadequate as the efforts at preventing further wars.  I remember the ineptitude with which the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic was handled by the authorities, as if nobody had learnt anything since 1919.  Fortunately that disease only affects animals.

What Is Your Reaction?

Did the public accept the pandemic as beyond anyone’s control?  Otherwise, why were there not the same sorts of protests demanding “Never again!” as there were against militarisation in many countries in the inter-war years, and subsequently?

I believe that this shows how our perception of an event, and therefore our reaction to it, can be influenced by the way it is reported.  Who sets the agenda?  I know, from many years of handling liability claims, that what happens after an accident can be as important as what did or did not happen in the first place.  Attempted denials, blaming the victim, a casual attitude to your responsibilities, a lack of sympathy for a victim, or a premature admission can all do serious damage to your reputation, whether the accident was your fault or not, whilst sometimes a cover-up can do more harm to an organisation’s reputation than the facts which they sought to cover up

So not only do we need to be careful how we interpret the News, but we also need to think how our own deeds and words may be reported. The public’s reaction to a mistake we make may be greatly out of proportion to the actual seriousness of the event.