The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Spain hated being linked to the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’ label echoes that.

Nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital in 1918. (Edward A. “Doc” Rogers/Library of Congress/AP)

Don’t call it the Spanish flu.

That’s what Spain said in 1918 at the start of what would become the deadliest pandemic in history, killing more than 50 million people worldwide. The Spanish got tagged with the killer name during the end of World War I because Spain was the first country to report the disease publicly, not because it originated there.

Spaniards called the highly contagious disease “The Soldier of Naples” after a catchy song popular at the time. But when the deadly virus exploded across the world and became known as “Spanish influenza,” Spain protested that its people were being falsely stigmatized.

President Trump is sparking similar complaints by referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” because it probably started in Wuhan, China. He did it again during a nationally televised news briefing Sunday night. Critics say the president is unfairly stigmatizing all Chinese people, while the president contends he is just stating facts.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Asia Pacific American Caucus, said President Trump's covid-19 rhetoric is used to distract the public. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump is ignoring the lessons of 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions, historian says

In 2015, the World Health Organization issued new guidelines for naming diseases “to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names” and “avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” The WHO specifically counseled against referring to countries in disease names.

That guidance came much too late to help Spain.

As World War I was winding down, a deadly pandemic had erupted in several countries, but under wartime censorship, the news was kept secret. Spain was neutral in the war, and Spanish officials made the mistake of cabling London to say that “a strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid.”

London newspapers jumped on the story, calling the illness the Spanish influenza or the Spanish grip, because the symptoms resembled the French grippe.

At first, the news was not taken seriously. “When flu bowled over the good señors and señoritas of Madrid, there was a panic,” wrote one London journalist. Before long, “flu had its run in Spain and was soon found to be a gentle, jolly little disease — almost sporty.”

As flu casualties skyrocketed in Europe and the United States, a Spanish medical official protested the Spanish name connection in an Oct 1, 1919, “Letter from Madrid” published in the Bulletin of the American Medical Association. The disease in Spain was “sudden in its appearance, brief in its course and subsiding without leaving a trace,” the official wrote.

When the epidemic began ravaging other countries, he wrote, “we were surprised to learn” people were calling it “the Spanish grip. … The germ may have increased its virulences and its power of diffusion in Spain, but it is evident that this epidemic was not born in Spain.”

In 1918, the Spanish flu infected the White House. Even President Wilson got sick.

By then, nations were pointing fingers at one another. Spain also called the virus the “French flu,” claiming French visitors to Madrid had brought it. “Germans called it the Russian Pest,” wrote Kenneth C. Davis in his book, “More Deadly Than War.” In a precursor to today’s crisis, “The Russians called it the Chinese Flu.”

Many people “leaped to the conclusion that this new evil, like early evils, must be traced to Germany,” one newspaper reported. The New York Times quoted a U.S. Army official who speculated that germs might have been planted by enemy agents put ashore from German submarines off the East Coast: “It would be quite easy for one of these German agents to turn loose Spanish influenza germs in a theater or some other place where large numbers of persons are assembled.”

There were even rumors that the germ was being put in Bayer aspirin.

Spain’s protest was overwhelmed by the media reports and the public culture. The disease also became known as “The Spanish Lady.” A popular poster showed a skeleton-like woman, clad in a veil and a long, dark dress, holding a handkerchief and a Flamenco fan. One implication was that she was a prostitute, spreading her infection worldwide.

Medical advertising also ran with the Spanish theme. One ad declared that medical authorities said the disease “is simply the old fashioned grip. … This time it comes by way of Spain.” The best way to stay safe? “Above all, avoid colds. Use Vicks VapoRub at the very first sign of a cold.”

The clincher was the announcement in early October that Spain’s King Alfonso XIII had come down with the flu, along with several members of his cabinet. Spanish officials repudiated any claims that the illness was a “Spanish disease,” adding that if Americans didn’t take care, “the epidemic will become so widespread throughout the United States that soon we shall hear the disease called ‘American’ influenza.”

Many prominent people in the United States and other countries caught the disease. In September 1918, Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt was taken by ambulance from the USS Leviathan, which had just docked in New York City, after getting the pneumonia that often followed the flu. Others who caught it included President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Mohandas Gandhi, author John Steinbeck, actress Lillian Gish, comedian Groucho Marx and Walt Disney.

The pandemic lasted until the end of 1920. In the United States, the flu killed more than 675,000 people. Speculation about the disease’s origin continued.

In 1920, after war censorship was lifted, reports suggested that the U.S. outbreak began among Army soldiers training at Camp Funston on Fort Riley in Kansas, where 46 people had died of resulting pneumonia. In 2014, National Geographic reported new findings by historian Mark Humphries tracing the disease to Chinese laborers transported to France and England during World War I.

After 100 years, the name Spanish flu still remains a source of aggravation in Spain. Recently, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a nationwide lockdown to fight the current coronavirus crisis. Sánchez, whose wife has since tested positive for the disease, used the name “coronavirus,” adding: “I am the prime minister, and I assume all responsibility.”


A previous version of this story misidentified Spain's king as Alfonso VIII. He was Alfonso XIII.

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