In case you didn’t know it, the 1918 Spanish flu was far worse than the coronavirus.

As of this writing, some 76,000 Americans, including 62 people in Maine, have died of COVID-19. In 1918, 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu, including 5,000 Mainers.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

The Spanish flu was something of a misnomer for an influenza epidemic thought to have first broken out in the filthy trenches during the First World War in France. The Spanish called the 1918 outbreak the French flu. It now appears the Spanish flu may have been brought to Europe by Chinese workers sent to the Western Front.

The Spanish flu was brought to this country from Europe by returning GIs. The first cases in Maine were likely carried by soldiers coming home by way of Camp Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts. Camp Devens was a Spanish flu hotspot where 850 soldiers died in 1918.

In the mid-1950s, we lived in Groton, Massachusetts, while my father worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance converting GI insurance for soldiers demobbing from Fort Devens.

I’m tempted to say that things have never been worse in my 71-year lifetime, and that’s certainly true in terms of the country shut down and people isolated by a public health crisis, but I am not as scared these days as I was in the early-1960s.

Met transferred my father to Providence, Rhode Island, where he sold debit insurance to poor people in public housing projects. We lived in Pawtucket and he’d go into the city every day to collect premiums. There had been a major polio scare a few years before we moved to Rhode Island and another in 1960 that had me convinced as a sixth grader that I would spend the rest of my life in an iron lung.

I was greatly relieved, therefore, when we moved back to the safety of Maine in December 1960, but duck-and-cover drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 once again had me living in fear for my life, this time from nuclear incineration.

In reading up on the Spanish flu, which you can do easily by going to for a 25-page timeline report, I was struck both by how different the response was then and yet how much the same.

There was denial at first, as there is now. On Sept. 25, 1918, for instance, it was reported, “Local Lewiston physicians are of the positive opinion that people in this vicinity should not be alarmed over an epidemic of Spanish influenza since there is no local epidemic of anything, just hard colds.”

By Oct. 2, Lewiston was running for cover, local officials ordering “schools, churches, theaters, pool rooms, dance halls, business college – everything but Bates College and the wage-earning industries” – closed.

My first realization that the coronavirus was serious was when Bowdoin College canceled the women’s basketball season just as the Polar Bears were about to march to a national title. Back in 1918, the college didn’t even close. The Bowdoin College infirmary treated 155 flu patients, two of whom died.

COVID-19 has hit the elderly hardest, but the Spanish flu disproportionately killed people between the ages of 20 and 40.

COVID-19 has targeted the African-American community, and the Spanish flu, too, brought social inequities to light. When Portland hospitals were overwhelmed by patients, they began turning away Irish Catholics. To tend his flock, the bishop asked the Sisters of Mercy to care for the sick. All 60 nuns did so and Mercy Hospital was born.

Talk about heroes.

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