While the coronavirus continues to spread, we can rewind a little over a hundred years in time. In 1918 and 1919, another virus as ravaged countries across the globe. It caused widespread devastation but, despite its origins, it became known as Spanish flu because of a much maligned king.
The Spanish flu came not from Spain, but from France at the very end of the First World War. The hospital camp in Étaples in France was identified by researchers as being at the center of the Spanish flu outbreak. The overcrowded camp and hospital was an ideal site for the spreading of a respiratory virus. At the most more than 100,000 soldiers passed through the camp every day.
To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of the illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. This allowed the disease to spread almost freely in Europe and the United States in the early stages.
Spain did not take part in World War One and, without the pressures of involvements, the newspapers wrote more freely about the condition. At first it was not known in Spain but when the king became ill the newspapers began to speculate and the rumours of a mysterious condition now spread rapidly. News of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918.
His Majesty King Alfonso XIII was one of the first Spaniards to get the illness. These stories created a false impression that Spain was especially hard hit by the flu, giving rise to the pandemic’s nickname, “Spanish flu”. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus had spread to them from France, so they took to calling it the “French Flu.”
King Alfonso became gravely ill. The King also infected Spain’s Prime Minister Antonio Maura and several members of the government. The king was quickly isolated and therefore he did not infect anyone else in the Spanish royal family. After being seriously ill for a long period, the king recovered completely. The 1918 influenza pandemic infected 500 million people around the world. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million.