COVID-19 has brought the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 sharply into the collective consciousness, but it was not the first worldwide pandemic to be faced by the modern state.
In the winter of 1889, a new type of flu came to Europe. Although it had originated in China, they called it ‘Russian Flu’ because, in November, newspapers – including those in Spain – reported that large numbers of people had fallen ill in St. Petersburg. It would take less than a month to reach Madrid.
With greatly improved transport links, unsurprisingly, it was suspected that the number of people travelling was responsible for its rapid spread. However, recent research has emphasised ‘that the important predictor of the speed of the pandemic is not the absolute numbers of passengers travelling between cities but the “connectedness” of the network of cities. In other words, it only took of a small number of people to spread the flu so quickly across an increasingly interconnected continent.
There had been flu outbreaks in 1836/7 and 1848 but these were little remembered and, in 1889, the Spanish authorities were disastrously slow to react. Despite the press tracking its seemingly inevitable arrival, no preparations had been made. In fact, the flu had probably been circulating undetected for weeks before the government acknowledged it on 17 December. The consequences of this inaction are difficult to establish but, in a recent study, Sara García Ferrero suggests that 65% of all 6,180 deaths in Madrid in the nine weeks that followed can be attributed to the flu. In Barcelona, as many as 52,000 caught the disease.
Understanding of virology was in its infancy and early reports focussed on whether it was in fact flu or, perhaps, dengue fever. Even making allowance for this, official messaging was confused and, initially, the threat was played down. The Provincial Health Board of Madrid met the same afternoon as the government’s acknowledgment to discuss their response; it was remarkably sanguine. La Iberia reported that they had confirmed the presence of ‘a disease, with epidemic characteristics, of the flu or a severe cold, in a very benign form.’ This is particularly surprising considering that, for weeks, the newspapers had been carrying reports of the large numbers taken seriously ill elsewhere. Even more worrying, though, was their contradictory assertion that the ‘disease is not spread by contagion.’
This may have been a deliberate attempt by state functionaries to manage the public reaction to the outbreak and there is further evidence of this phenomenon elsewhere. In Reus, for example, the authorities ordered that church bells no longer be rung for the dead to avoid spreading fear among the population. It was, however, a difficult balance to strike. The endorsement of ‘cures’, such as ¡Pum! (Bang!) – a punch of rum and bitter orange – may have done more harm than good.
Some of the more concrete measures taken were also strikingly modern. Primary schools were closed and the Christmas holiday was extended for older students. A 250-bed field hospital was constructed at the present-day School of Engineering, off the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid. What is particularly notable about these actions is that they were the same as those that had been taken elsewhere. Then, as now, there appeared to be an international consensus about the contours of state intervention. Nevertheless, although such intervention may have slowed the spread, it failed to stop it completely.
The authorities did nothing the limit public gatherings, perhaps for fear of economic damage, but it still came at a cost. On 22 December, La Correspondencía de España reported that as many as 600 soldiers of the Madrid garrison had fallen ill. Despite this, there were signs that a type of social distancing was happening intuitively. People decided to avoid public spaces; streets, shops and cafés were largely deserted, and theatres closed (though only because of high levels of sickness among the performers.)
The longer-term, chronic impoverishment of the Spanish state meant that its capacity for a more exhaustive response was limited. Even the field hospital had to rely at least in part on private donations.
The effects of the pandemic itself also significantly disrupted the provision of public services. Predictably, doctors were particularly vulnerable to catching the flu, but there were also high sickness rates among state officials. Paradoxically, though, some of this disruption served to limit the spread of the virus. Sickness rates among transport workers, for example, disrupted tram and railway services, involuntarily restricting the movement of people.
While these restrictions and relative wealth helped shield the middle class, the poor were disproportionally affected. Plainly because of overcrowding and poor sanitation, but also because the state’s penetration was weakest in the most deprived areas. The measures the authorities introduced had little effect on the lives of the residents there. In a quandary with sad parallels today, many had little choice but risk their health and continue to go out to work.
The flu of 1889-90 was nothing like as deadly as COVID-19, but there are remarkable similarities in the Spanish state’s response. Despite advances in understanding, most countries made similar early mistakes during the current pandemic to those Spain made then. In both cases, this can partly be explained by a lack of scientific knowledge about the threat, but most decisions are also political ones, with intended and unintended consequences.
Eventually the measures were lifted. But only late in January and only when the death rate had returned to normal. In 1890 the lessons had been learned; it remains to be seen whether they will be in 2020. And if they will be remembered more enduringly this time.
Dan Royle is an historian of nineteenth-century Spain. His PhD at the University of Sheffield is on 1848.
Cover Image: Plaza Mayor (ca. 1890), Memoria de Madrid
 Alain-Jacques Valleron, ‘Transmissibility and geographic spread of the 1889 influenza pandemic’, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A. 107/19 (2010) pp.8778–8781.
 Sara García Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890 en Madrid’, Ph.D. thesis (Universidad complutense de Madrid, 2017), p.452.
 Bogumiła Kempińska-Mirosławska and Agnieszka Woźniak-Kosek, ‘The influenza epidemic of 1889–90 in selected European cities – a picture based on the reports of two Poznań daily newspapers from the second half of the nineteenth century’, in Medical Science Monitor 19 (2013), pp.1131–1141.
 ‘Noticias’, in La Iberia (18 December 1889), p.2.
 Quoted in Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890’, p.38.
 La Correspondencia de España (22 December 1889), p.3; Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890’, p.43.
 ‘Boletín sanitario’, in El Día (28 December 1889), p.1.