The Spanish flu was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history. It claimed more casualties than World War I and destroyed 3-5% of the world’s population. How did the people of Košice survive the Spanish flu and what were the countermeasures taken by the city?
The first infection cases in the Kingdom of Hungary were recorded in early summer 1918. At that time, it was still being discussed whether it was appropriate to consider it an epidemic at all, so, for several months the necessary measures were not taken and the public health authorities were reluctant to declare an epidemic due to its financial costs. The disease claimed the most victims among those aged from 14 to 35 and its rapid course frightened the people. The lack of doctors and drugs, unprofessional care and difficulties in transporting patients aggravated the situation, while many doctors and nurses have also become infected.
During the entire pandemic, the highest mortality rate was recorded in Košice in October 1918. The then management of the city focused all of its attention on the soldiers returning from the front and on the scarce public supplies. Meanwhile, the Spanish flu has reached alarming figures. “Everyone gets it, everyone suffers because of it, except for those who die in the first 24 hours,” wrote one of the correspondents of the paper Kassai Hirlap, with some grotesque humor. After the chief official physician, Géza Nagy (1869–1922), reported almost 2,000 infected cases on 30 September, mayor Béla Blanár confirmed the existence of an epidemic on the same day and set up an epidemic response committee (Járványügyi Bizottság).
The measures taken by the city management were very similar to the current ones. The mayor closed all schools in September. Primary and secondary schools opened only in the new state, in early 1919. In the second half of October, cinemas and theatres were closed, sports matches, folk and dance parties were banned. As for entertainment establishments, restaurants and cafés, the measures were not as strict as they are today. They could be open until 10 p.m. In addition to this, between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., the premises were to be disinfected and closed to the public. Thorough cleaning and ventilation was also ordered in the factories every day between 12 a.m. and 2 p.m. The population was urged to avoid taking walks in the city and mass visits to cemeteries, churches and prayer houses. The residents were obliged to mark the houses of sick people with a red sign.
The city has extended the opening hours of pharmacies in accordance with the regulations of the Ministry of Interior. Pharmacies were obliged to be open until 10 p.m. and to accept those interested in medication even after 10 p.m. The Ministry of Defense has commissioned military doctors to care for civilian patients throughout Abaúj-Torna county. On October 19, there were only thirteen deaths registered; however, ten days later, this number increased to forty. Political gatherings and folk feasts accompanying the Aster Revolution, as well as crowds of customers gathered at bakeries and butchers’ during the limited opening hours, helped spreading the disease.
Although archival research in this area is still absent, several official data can be found in the fund of the Official Chief Physician of Košice (in the Archives of the City of Košice) and in the periodical press. From the reports of the official chief physician Géza Nagy it is evident that in September 1918, there were 2 registered deaths in the city, while until November 6, another 45 deaths occurred. In his report of 30 September, he stated the number of infected people was 2,000. This number seems to be slightly exaggerated, given that October was the worst month during the epidemic. Nevertheless, by 6 November, 358 civilian and 1,273 military cases had been reported (a total of 1,631 people), which was theoretically less than in September. Based on the above numbers, it was about 7% of the city’s population, made up of 45,000 inhabitants and several thousand soldiers.
As the infection spread at a remarkable rate in the army, at the end of October 1918, the city and the division headquarters agreed to isolate people suffering from the Spanish flu in the military barracks (converted to a military epidemic response hospital) on today’s Skladná Street (today, this facility is known as “Kasárne Kulturpark“). On the other hand, according to the expert opinions of the time, the infection in Košice was less severe than in other parts of the country. Experts say that the first wave, which began in the first half of 1918, had relatively few casualties, compared to the devastating second wave in October and November. The third wave of the epidemic in the spring of 1919 claimed more lives than the first, but still lagged far behind the second wave. If these general tendencies were also characteristic to the city of Košice, the estimated number of casualties was 150 and the number of infected reached at least 5–6 thousand.
Due to the extremely high mortality rate, it was long thought that the disease was caused by a kind of virus. However, today we know that the virus did not differ significantly from the pathogens that led to similar epidemics at that time. The high mortality was mainly due to various factors associated with the war. Overcrowding in barracks, poor hygiene and malnutrition have contributed to the fact that weakened people often failed to overcome the infection.
Some fake-news and fatalities of the period
Due to the high number of infected soldiers, the public accused brothels of spreading the epidemic, while salesmen were spreading rumors that alcohol was the best antidote to the disease.
Well-known victims of the Spanish flu included King Charles IV of Hungary, Hungarian writer Margit Kaffka (and her small son), the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the German sociologist, philosopher and economist Max Weber. One of the victims – dying not in Košice, but in Budapest – included the 38-year-old member of the well-known Košice family of lawyers, Pál Halmi, who also went through the hardships of the front, along with his three brothers. His portrait was painted by Elemér Halász-Hradil, a painter from Košice.
According to medical historian Harald Salfellner, 46 to 77 thousand people died in the Czech Republic alone. According to experts, Slovakia had half of the casualties recorded in the Czech Republic. According to Hungarian historians, throughout Hungary, more than 53,000 people died of the Spanish flu in 1918. The history of the pandemic, raging a hundred years ago, can still serve as an important lesson for humanity. By consciously avoiding the mistakes committed at that time, we can do a lot to minimize the risk of recurrent flu pandemics – wash your hands regularly and eat healthy food.
Veronika Szeghy-Gayer, Institute of Social Sciences (SvÚ CSPV SAV)
Archive of the City of Košice, collection of the Official Chief Physician of Košice, 1827–1940
Archive of the City of Košice, collection of the Mayor’s Office of Košice, 1239–1922
Kassai Hírlap, September-December 1918
Harald Salfellner, Die Spanische Grippe. Eine Geschichte der Pandemie von 1918. Prag Vitalis Verlag 2018, 168 p.
Veronika Szeghy-Gayer, Civilek elleni erőszak Kassán: Az első csehszlovák megszállás hónapjai (1918.december-1919. június). in: Müller, Rolf; Takács, Tibor; Tulipán, Éva (eds.), Terror 1918–1919: Forradalmárok, ellenforradalmárok, megszállók. Budapest Jaffa Kiadó 2019) pp. 53–83.