It was October 1918. The second wave of the so-called “Spanish flu” – the 20th century’s biggest pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide – had reached its peak. Municipal public services across Spain were stretched to the limit, and the Mediterranean region was particularly hard hit.
The mayor of Alicante, Antonio Bono Luque, was forced to call an extraordinary city council session on October 14 to seek assistance from Civil Governor José María Caballero, the government’s political authority in the province.
The mayor expounded his plan to fight the epidemic, which was nicknamed the “Spanish flu” even though its origin was not in Spain. He needed money for healthcare equipment. But he also wanted to raze parts of the three poorest neighborhoods in town and relocate the residents. This measure, which was effectively carried out, ultimately helped spread the virus even further.
Records of the council session kept in the Municipal Archive of Alicante show that Bono stated the following: “The places where the most deaths have occurred, and are occurring, are the parts of the city where there is the least hygiene.”
These hotspots of disease, he said, were in places “where housing lacks the most basic elements of habitability, in those shacks that Alicante has at the foot of the Castle of Santa Bárbara, where people live in such overcrowded and miserable conditions as can cause the damage to public health that we are lamenting today.”
The mayor was talking about the neighborhood of Las Provincias, a clutch of homes clinging to the slopes of Mount Benacantil, the heart of the city in the early 20th century.
Bono proposed taking action in Las Provincias and in parts of the neighborhoods of El Carmen and Arrabal Roig, which he described as the city’s main flu clusters. He also suggested adapting “pavilions and dockers” to house anyone left homeless by the sanitation measures. Las Provincias has since then disappeared not only physically, but also from the collective memory of modern Alicantinos. The other two neighborhoods still stand.
“Accusing the most vulnerable people of being at the epicenter of the pandemic was a regular occurrence” during the 1918 flu pandemic, says María Isabel Porras, a professor of science history at Castilla-La Mancha University (UCLM). “Epidemics never affect everyone equally. The impact is always greater on people with fewer resources, poor nutrition and who live in overcrowded conditions in small spaces.”
It’s been a similar story, she says, with the Covid-19 pandemic and “the closure of some Madrid neighborhoods,” alluding to the September confinements of densely populated low-income areas south of the Spanish capital.
Based on a study by the scholars Josep Bernabeu-Mestre and Mercedes Pascual from Alicante University, this expert from UCLM notes that the 1918 plan to sanitize the poorer districts of Alicante forced residents to leave the area. “In many cases they were resettled, leading to family dispersal. And workers from other parts were sent back to their home towns,” she says.
The social stigma associated with the disease is not the only similarity between the health emergencies of past and present. The Spanish flu went through a first wave in the spring, affecting mostly Madrid and the regions then known as Castilla la Nueva and Castilla la Vieja, says Porras. The second wave was more intense, and spread toward the Mediterranean.
The movement of people during the summer months played a key role. People going on vacation, seasonal workers following the harvests, and young men going to their duty stations for military service all helped the virus expand.
The impact of epidemics is always greater on people with fewer resources, poor nutrition and who live in overcrowded conditions in small spacesMaría Isabel Porras, professor of science history at Castilla-La Mancha University
The mortality figures analyzed by Porras show that Alicante, with 581 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, took the biggest hit of the three provinces that now make up the Valencia region (the fatality rate in Castellón was 495 per 100,000 and in Valencia province it was 335 per 100,000).
And there were even worse places: further down the coast, in Almería province, there were 988 deaths for every 100,000 people. But the national record went to the northwestern province of Zamora with 1,013. Official figures show that the flu epidemic killed 147,114 people in 1918, 21,245 in 1919 and 17,825 in 1920, in a country with a population of just over 20 million at the time.
At the same council session of October 14, 1918, the mayor of Alicante requested resources to purchase health and sanitation equipment, including “four portable heaters and an ultra-modern Metzger heater with all of its accessories.” The city also requested resources to stock up on “disinfecting material to be used by the sanitation brigades, and to offer to private citizens at cost price.” The mayor also wanted to buy “two sanitation carts to carry clothes and other items and to transfer the sick.”
“More than 100 years have elapsed, and the measures to combat an epidemic remain the same, such as isolation, confinement and hygiene, as well as public sanitation measures like street cleaning,” underscores Porras. There is no evidence that face masks were used in Spain at the time, although there are records of their use in France. “Back then people were also trying like crazy to develop a vaccine, although they failed,” adds Porras.
On the social and economic level, the parallels between both pandemics are quite remarkable, says Porras. “The feeling is that we’re always running up against the same thing, the dilemma between the economy and health. In 1918 local authorities asked for financial aid and loans, and they activated food banks for the needy,” she notes. “These days we are resorting to ERTEs [job retention schemes] and sadly we are seeing food lines again.”
But there is one substantial difference. “In 1918, it was working-age people who died in greater numbers, so that the impact on economic activity was even bigger than the impact of [this past spring’s] confinement.”
English version by Susana Urra.