Sunday, March 1, 2020 8:32 am
The global pandemic, the 1918 influenza (Spanish flu) which, like an evil whirlwind, ravaged Europe between January 1918 and December 1920, killed over 50 million people, with other sources quoting figures that were higher. Just like Coronavirus which is currently on its dark visits to many countries, including Nigeria, the 1918 influenza originated from China, according to a report by National Geographic.
How did it happen in 1918? National Geographic has it that the deadly “Spanish flu” claimed more lives than World War I, “which ended the same year the pandemic struck. Now, new research is placing the flu’s emergence in a forgotten episode of World War I: the shipment of Chinese laborers across Canada in sealed train cars.”
Historian Mark Humphries of Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland, according to the report, says that newly “unearthed records confirm that one of the side stories of the war—the mobilization of 96,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines on World War I’s Western Front—may have been the source of the pandemic.”
National Geographic wrote further that in his study, Humphries reveals an outbreak of respiratory infections, which at the time were dubbed an endemic “winter sickness” by local health officials, “were causing dozens of deaths a day in villages along China’s Great Wall. The illness spread 300 miles (500 kilometers) in six weeks’ time in late 1917.”
“Humphries discovered that a British legation official in China wrote that the disease was actually influenza, in a 1918 report. Humphries made the findings in searches of Canadian and British historical archives that contain the wartime records of the Chinese Labor Corps and the British legation in Beijing.”
The report has it further: “At the time of the outbreak, British and French officials were forming the Chinese Labor Corps, which eventually shipped some 94,000 laborers from northern China to southern England and France during the war.
“The idea was to free up soldiers to head to the front at a time when they were desperate for manpower,” Humphries says. “So desperate was the need for labor that on March 2, 1918, a ship loaded with 1,899 Chinese Labor Corps men left the Chinese port of Wehaiwei for Vancouver despite “plague” stopping the recruiting for workers there.”
“In reaction to anti-Chinese feelings rife in western Canada at the time, the trains that carried the workers from Vancouver were sealed, Humphries says. Special Railway Service Guards watched the laborers, who were kept in camps surrounded by barbed wire. Newspapers were banned from reporting on their movement. Roughly 3,000 of the workers ended up in medical quarantine, their illnesses often blamed on their ‘lazy’ natures by Canadian doctors, Humphries said: ‘They had very stereotypical, racist views of the Chinese.’ Doctors treated sore throats with castor oil and sent the Chinese back to their camps. The Chinese laborers arrived in southern England by January 1918 and were sent to France, where the Chinese Hospital at Noyelles-sur-Mer recorded hundreds of their deaths from respiratory illness.”
Below is the report, entitled:
1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say
By Dan Vergano, National Geographic
PUBLISHED January 24, 2014
The global flu outbreak of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, ranking as one of the deadliest epidemics in history.
For decades, scientists have debated where in the world the pandemic started, variously pinpointing its origins in France, China, the American Midwest, and beyond. Without a clear location, scientists have lacked a complete picture of the conditions that bred the disease and factors that might lead to similar outbreaks in the future.
The deadly “Spanish flu” claimed more lives than World War I, which ended the same year the pandemic struck. Now, new research is placing the flu’s emergence in a forgotten episode of World War I: the shipment of Chinese laborers across Canada in sealed train cars.
Historian Mark Humphries of Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland says that newly unearthed records confirm that one of the side stories of the war—the mobilization of 96,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines on World War I’s Western Front—may have been the source of the pandemic.
Writing in the January issue of the journal War in History, Humphries acknowledges that his hypothesis awaits confirmation by viral samples from flu victims. Such evidence would tie the disease’s origin to one location.
But some other historians already find his argument convincing.
“This is about as close to a smoking gun as a historian is going to get,” says historian James Higgins, who lectures at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and who has researched the 1918 spread of the pandemic in the United States. “These records answer a lot of questions about the pandemic.”
Last of the Great Plagues
The 1918 flu pandemic struck in three waves across the globe, starting in the spring of that year, and is tied to a strain of H1N1 influenza ancestral to ones still virulent today.
The outbreak killed even the young and healthy, turning their strong immune systems against them in a way that’s unusual for flu. Adding to the catastrophic loss of lives during World War I, the epidemic may have played a role in ending the war.
“The 1918 flu was the last of the great plagues that struck humanity, and it followed in the tracks of a global conflict,” says Humphries.
Even as the pandemic’s origins have remained a mystery, the Chinese laborers have previously been suggested as a source of the disease.
Historian Christopher Langford has shown that China suffered a lower mortality rate from the Spanish flu than other nations did, suggesting some immunity was at large in the population because of earlier exposure to the virus.
In the new report, Humphries finds archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the Spanish flu.
He also found medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917 ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms.
The Spanish flu reached its height in autumn 1918 but raged until 1920, initially gaining its nickname from wartime censorship rules that allowed for reporting on the disease’s ravages in neutral Spain.
Physicians began debating the origin of the pandemic almost as soon as it appeared, Higgins says, with historians soon joining them.
France’s wartime trenches, ridden with filth, disease, and death, were originally seen as the flu’s breeding ground. The flu’s tendency to strike young adults was explained as the disease targeting itself to young soldiers in trenches. The theory also purported to explain how the illness spread from Europe to cities such as Boston and Philadelphia by pointing a finger at returning troop ships.
A decade after the war, Kansas was identified as another possible breeding ground, due to reports of an influenza outbreak there that spread to a nearby Army camp in March 1918, killing 48 doughboys.
Continue reading the story in National Geographic
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